Boys of Summer
by Stellaluna

i. Outside It Was New York

Summertime is slow time, except when it comes to murder. The homicide rate climbs as steadily as the mercury in the thermometer, and by the time Labor Day arrives, CSU will be wading through an ocean of blood every time they step onto the city streets or duck under a barrier of crime-scene tape. Meanwhile, the whole rest of the world will all but come to a grinding halt, and trying to think in the unforgiving heat will be like trying to work through a layer of cotton wool. Tempers will flare and tepid showers will only help for a little while; their cars and the lab, at least, are all air-conditioned, but there are still all the times in between, and all the deaths, untimely and otherwise, that they'll have to contend with.

These are, perhaps, morbid thoughts to be having on what's probably going to be a perfectly gorgeous early-June day, but nonetheless, this is what's on Mac's mind when he wakes up that morning, just as it has been every nearly-summer morning since he became a detective. It's not something he dwells on, but every year the first run of hot days put him in mind of flaring tempers and impulsive stabbings instead of barbecues and trips to Jones Beach. He wakes up and thinks Going to have to remember to order extra sample kits before he even opens his eyes.

This to-do item processed and noted -- he'll put it on his calendar before the end of the day -- he opens his eyes and looks at the clock, and sees to his dismay that it's not even seven yet, despite the sun streaming in through the curtains. Which wouldn't be a problem if he were home or if it were any other day but Saturday, but under the circumstances...He bites back a sigh and wills himself to lie still, to wait for a more reasonable hour before he gets out of bed. There isn't anywhere he has to be, after all.

By the time he's halfway through his shower, an hour or so later, he's been able to talk himself back around to the mantra he's been repeating to himself for the past few weeks: These things take time. It's hard to remember that when all he's doing is lying in bed and his mind has little with which to occupy itself; it becomes easier once he's up and consumed with the minutiae of the daily routine. But these things really do take time, and it's early days yet. If the bathroom is still as halfway unfamiliar as the bedroom, even now, it's something he should be unsurprised by. He still feels like a guest (which, really, he is), or like someone staying in a hotel.

If he were to mention this to Rose, and he knows there's no way he could without sounding rude or complaining, she would only worry about what she could do to make it better for him. Mac knows she's done nothing wrong, and yet can do nothing more to ease the process. So he keeps his mouth shut and tries not to think longingly of his own bed or his own office. Among other things, it's only a couple of nights a week, and surely a bit of an adjustment period is a welcome trade-off for steady companionship.

He thinks this, and tilts his head back, letting the hot water run down his face.

"Good morning," Rose says when he comes back into the bedroom. She's sitting at the end of the bed, finger-combing her hair.

"Good morning."

She looks up at him. "Did you sleep well?"

"Fine." He locates his watch on the dresser and straps it on; he's already changed back into yesterday's clothes. He'd probably do well to bring a change of clothing on weekend evenings, since he's not keen on wearing the same thing two days running, but he keeps forgetting. He really should add a reminder to his schedule.

"That's good." She smiles at him. "You've had your shower already."

"Yes," he says, and returns the smile. "We probably want to get to the coffee shop before it gets too crowded."

"I'll be quick," she says, and stands up. When she walks past him, Mac thinks that he should kiss her. Instead, he smiles again, and touches her shoulder.

This is his new routine on the weekends now, or so it would seem. On Friday night, if he doesn't have any pressing cases, he and Rose go out to dinner. She tells him about her week, and he gives her an abbreviated (and somewhat sanitized) version of his own. After dinner, sometimes they'll go to a movie or an art gallery, depending on the time, and at the end of the evening, he'll go home with Rose and go to bed with her. Saturday mornings they have breakfast at the coffee shop before going their separate ways. Mac goes home afterwards to change his clothes, then heads back into the city, where he goes to the gym and then back to the lab. He spends several hours working, until he feels he's made a reasonable amount of progress on his current cases and reports.

After this, in the late afternoon, he'll give Rose a call, and if he's not too swamped with work, he'll meet her again for dinner, and that's usually that for the weekend. They don't see each other much during the rest of the week, although he has joined her at Quartino for drinks a time or two. They do talk on the phone or e-mail each other; Rose will call him or drop him a quick note to see how he's doing, or just to catch up whenever either of them get a few minutes at work to take a breather.

All of these things are good; it reminds him sometimes of the old days, back when he was first dating Claire, and how going out with her was always his only shot in any given week to be a private citizen instead of a cop, back when he still thought that he could switch back and forth between the two roles, or that the ability to do so was a desirable thing.

Like Claire, too, Rose knows how to tell a story, and he likes listening to her publishing industry anecdotes and tales about her adventures in college or where she grew up in New Haven; among other things, they save him from having to come up with stories of his own. It's not that he doesn't want to talk to her, but he's not about to discuss Chicago, and he doesn't think she would want to hear too much about the Corps or the grimmer aspects of CSU. All of his most interesting stories either involve blood or are too obscene to repeat to anyone who wasn't a firsthand witness or participant.

Then, too, there are great swaths of his past that he's leaving out, even aside from Chicago. Like Claire, and he knows he should tell her he was once married, he knows, but he just can't bring himself to do it. Not yet. Someday, he tells himself, he'll sit her down and tell her all about Claire. When the time is right.




On their walk to the coffee shop, after Rose is done with her shower and dressed, Mac finds himself suddenly very aware of her presence at his side. She's not saying much, just walking along and probably enjoying the Saturday-morning quiet, and occasionally stifling a yawn. It's a good opportunity to observe her. She's pretty; he thought that the first night they went out together, and still thinks so. They must, he realizes, look just like any other ordinary couple going out to breakfast.

Couple? Just like any two ordinary people, he corrects himself. They're dating, there's no doubt about that, but it's too soon to put any other kind of label on them. He's not ready for anything more defining, not yet, and probably neither is Rose.

Still, she really is a nice woman, and they're so normal together, so low-key; in spite of the things he can't talk to her about, this is a relationship far less fraught with tension and drama than some other entanglements he's found himself in, and he's grateful for this. When he's with Rose, he never gets the feeling he's walking through a field seeded with unexploded mines, or that there are hidden tripwires waiting for him around every corner.




That first week he was seeing Rose, he called her on Tuesday, and took her out to dinner on Wednesday, to a tiny, dimly-lit cafe on St. Mark's Place. He would end up not making a habit of these midweek dates, but this time it seemed appropriate; he had, after all, slept with her on Monday, and even though he hadn't stayed the night, he had stayed for an hour or so afterward, talking to her, and he had kissed her when he left and told her he'd call her. It was only the polite thing to do.

She had exclaimed over his face when she arrived, looking shocked and just a little bit scared. "A suspect," he said, fingering his bruised cheek. "I was looking for evidence in an alley and the guy jumped me," thinking vaguely of the guy who'd left out of the dumpster when he and Stella were working the drug case at Chelsea University. He'd easily bested the perp in that situation, but it served well enough as a cover story.

"My God," she said. "Is it -- does this sort of thing happen often?"

"Not very often, no," he said. "We don't work the exciting detail nearly as much as homicide does."

"If that's the result of exciting, I think I'll settle for dull," she said, and he'd put a hand on her shoulder as they walked into the restaurant.

Later, as they lingered over coffee and dessert, Rose, who had been fiddling with her spoon and talking about one of the authors she was working with, suddenly set down her spoon and regarded him with a serious expression. Mac fought down an urge to ask if he had anything on his face, and said, "What?"

"I..." She paused, and he thought he recognized the nervous, determined tilt of her chin: it was the same look she'd gotten on her face when she'd asked if he was married or seeing anyone. "I had a very nice time the other night," she said after a pause, "and I hope we'll...that we can see each other again. I like you. I just...I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me," she concluded in a rush.

He set down his fork. "Wrong idea?" he said. "I don't..."

She looked down at her hands. "I'm not usually the kind of girl who goes to bed with a man on the first date. Not that I regret it," she said, "because it was wonderful. I like you, and I decided to be spontaneous, and I'm glad of it, but I wanted you to know that all the same. I'm really not that kind of girl."

Mac, whose closest friend in the world is that kind of woman, remembers looking at her in silence, unsure of what he was supposed to say. Finally it came to him: reassurance. That was what she was looking for. "I never thought anything of the kind," he said, and this -- unlike his answer to her question about marriage -- was nothing but the truth. "I hope you don't think I'm that kind of man, either," he said, and smiled.

She laughed and shook her head, and after a moment the conversation had moved on to other topics. He hadn't gone home with her again that night, but on Friday he had taken her to see a revival of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at Film Forum, and afterward he had gone home with her again; this time he spent the night.




And now here they are; he sits across the booth from her in the coffee shop, deciding what he wants for breakfast, and he thinks, again, that everything might just work out okay.

Mac sets the menu down, and Rose smiles at him. "Do you know what you want?" she asks.

He nods, and before he can ask her if she's ready, too -- although he assumes she is, since her menu is closed -- the waitress comes over to take their order. Not Amy, who won't be back at work for another few weeks yet, but Polly, who, of course, wants to be an actress, and who Mac sometimes suspects is playing a character every time she comes to work for her own private amusement, that of an exaggeratedly tough New York waitress.

"Hey, you two," she says. "How are you this morning? Busy bustin' crooks?"

"That's him," Rose says, smiling. "Not me."

"Right." Polly nods. "So how is the fingerprint business?"

"It's fine," Mac says. "Busy."

"That's good. Say, how come I never see you in here with that guy anymore?"

"That guy?" Mac repeats.

"Yeah, y'know. Kinda skinny guy, glasses, waved his hands so much when he talked I was always afraid he was gonna knock somethin' over?" Polly leans against the edge of the table. "You was comin' in here with him all the time back a coupla months ago. What happened?"

Mac glances over at Rose, who is listening to this. The expression on her face is one of mild curiosity, nothing more.

"Oh, just a colleague of mine," Mac says, and looks up at Polly calmly. "May I order now, or do you want to go another round of Twenty Questions?"

Polly smirks. "What can I get ya?"

"One of your detectives?" Rose says, after they've given their orders and Polly has gone back to the kitchen. There's no accusation in her voice, but why should there be?

"Yes," Mac says, and unfolds his napkin. "We were working on a case together and putting in a lot of overtime. We came here for breakfast a few weekends."

"Well, I hope the police department reimbursed you for that," Rose says.

"I managed to slip it in as a line item on our expense reports."

"Good." Rose takes a sip of orange juice. "So...your colleagues. Do you spend much time with them outside of work?"

"No," he says, after a pause. "No, not really. They're...not too well socialized, I'm afraid."

Rose smiles. "I'd still like to meet them someday. They sound like interesting people."

"We'll see what we can arrange," Mac says. "I meant to ask you, did you see the article in the Times yesterday about the Library at Alexandria?"

Her eyes light up. "Yes. What did you think?"

As he starts to tell her, he feels himself starting to breathe a little easier. Subject safely changed, and of course Rose suspects nothing. What, after all, could there possibly be to suspect?




After breakfast, and after his detour home to change clothes, Mac sits on a half-empty subway car on the train back to the city, staring out the window, first at the dark tunnels rushing by, and then, when the train briefly becomes an elevated line, at the crumbling Brooklyn skyline. He finds that he's enjoying the quiet and the opportunity to be alone with his thoughts, especially if the solitude means that he'll be able to stop thinking for at least a little while.

He manages to get into the zone while he's on the treadmill, and at the lab that afternoon, he falls easily into the soothing rhythms of the STR process and working with the ABI sequencer, but no matter how hard he tries, unwelcome thoughts keep creeping back in.

When he's done for the day, it's past eight o'clock, but he decides to call Rose anyway. They have a late dinner at Susie's on Bleecker Street, and then Rose asks him back to her place for a drink, and of course after that he takes her to bed. He kisses her and eases her slowly down to the mattress, and as he slides on top of her, he tries to concentrate on what he's doing, on the two of them, and to let the rest of the day fall from his memory.

It's never rough-and-tumble when they're together; he never goes around the next day with a deep ache in his thighs or his groin, or has to worry about covering up bite marks or scratches. It's always good, and thoughts of their sex life never distract him at all the worst times of day. He never catches himself, in the middle of a budget meeting, thinking about her stretched out naked before him; he doesn't ever look into a microscope and suddenly find his thoughts turning to the little hitch she gets in her breath when she has an orgasm.

Rose holds him close and strokes his hair, and he unbuttons her blouse as he plants a slow line of kisses down her neck. Her breasts are soft under his hands and her breath is warm in his ear as he hooks his fingers into the side of her panties.

He closes his eyes and he doesn't see Danny behind his lids; he doesn't think of Danny at all when he's in bed with Rose.




"Hey, there," Stella says, leaning in the doorway of Mac's office on Monday morning.

He looks up from his e-mail. "Hey."

"How was your weekend?"

"It was, you know..." He shuffles some of the papers on his desk. "Fine."

"Fine." She raises an eyebrow at him. "Did you and Rose do anything fun?"

"Had dinner," he says. "Saw a movie on Saturday. It was...unmemorable."

"Mmm. Sorry to hear that," Stella says. "So when are we all going to get to meet her?"

Mac sets the papers down in a new place. "You've met her," he says.

"Yeah, at a crime scene," she says, rolling her eyes. "It doesn't count."

"Someday," Mac says at last, and looks away.

There's a pause, and of course Stella doesn't leave like he's half-hoping she will; cooperative isn't exactly a big part of her repertoire, and never has been.

"So you know Fleet Week starts on Wednesday," she says at last.

"Is it that time of year already?" he asks.

"Uh huh. All those fresh off the boat sailors, some of them in the big city for the first time, looking for a little companionship..." She comes into the office. "Were you all awed by the lights of the big city the first time you came into town?"

"Stella, I'm from Chicago," he says. "It's not exactly the boondocks."

"Granted," she says. "Were you at least awed know..." She waves her hands. "All those girls just lining up for their shot at you?"

He shakes his head and doesn't answer.

"Oh, come on, Mac. You can't tell me you never got lucky during Fleet Week. That's the whole point."

"It is n--"

"Okay, it's one of the points." She leans in. "Admit it. You scored, didn't you?"

He sighs. "Occasionally."

She claps her hands, delighted. "I knew it. So tell me: how many girls? Which of them was the most memorable?"


"What?" she asks, all innocence. "Share a story or two. What was the wildest time you ever had?"

"I'm not telling you that, Stella."

"Hey, maybe you slept with me during Fleet Week one year," Stella says. "I made it a point to get friendly with my share of sailors back in the day."

"I don't think so." Mac gets up and walks over to the file cabinet, where he busies himself with sorting through another stack of files. He refuses to let himself blush or even feel embarrassed, because he knows this game; embarrassing him is the entire point, and he'll be damned if he gives Stella the satisfaction.

"What, you think you would have remembered it if we had?" Stella grins. "You're probably right. Still, Mac, it was a long time ago. Last time you were here for Fleet Week as part of the fleet, I would've had big '80s hair."

He glances at her. "You have big hair now."

"But not big '80s hair."

He considers, and then rejects, the idea of asking what the difference is.

She strolls over and leans against the cabinet, right next to where he's standing. "See, the way I figure it, it was a long time ago, and I'm guessing that you got lucky a lot during Fleet Week."

"Do you, now?" is all he says, and starts to rearrange the files from the Benchley case.

"Mmm-hmm. In that Marine uniform, all young and muscular and charmingly shy? Of course you did. And among all those girls you hit it with, well, they were bound to blur into each other after a while. You know, the names, the faces...who could expect you to remember every single conquest from all that time ago? However, if you think back to the most memorable lay you had during Fleet Week, I betcha anything that it was me."

He puts the Benchley file into the drawer, and reaches for another stack. Stella keeps on talking, the smirk plastered across her face making her look as self-satisfied as a cat with canary feathers still clinging to its jaws. "'Cause trust me, Mac, I have had a lot of sailors during Fleet Week, and I've managed to rock their worlds nearly every single time. So 'fess up: it was me, wasn't it? Your most memorable Fleet Week fuck?"

"Stella..." He drops the file he's been holding on top of the cabinet, and turns to face her at last.

"What?" She blinks at him.

"Why do you do this to me?" he asks. "Do you lie awake nights thinking up ways to make my life a living hell? Do you read old Miss Manners columns to find the most absolutely inappropriate topics of conversation out there, and then bring them up whenever I try to have a normal discussion with you?"

She widens her eyes, all fake sympathy. "Did I embarrass you?"

"No," he says firmly.

"Did too."

"No, you didn't." He shuts the drawer and walks over to his desk. "I'm beyond your attempts to embarrass me now. I know all your tricks, and I'm impervious to them."

"So then tell me about your most memorable Fleet Week fuck."

"It wasn't you."

"I know. But you wouldn't tell me what it was like, so -- "

"So you thought you'd harass me into giving up the story."

She chews on her lower lip. "Did it work?"


"Goddammit!" She circles around him and sits down in his chair before he can get to it. "Mac, you are the most stubborn closed book of a man I have ever met in my life."

He sighs. "This is news to you?"

She looks up at him. "Just give me a hint."


"One little detail."


"Do you want to hear about mine?"

"No, thank you."

There's another pause, during which Mac wishes very hard that something distracting will happen, then, "Did I tell you that Aiden and I are planning to take Danny down to the docks on Wednesday night?" she asks. "He's interested in picking up a sailor, and we thought we'd give him some pointers."

Mac is still filing, or pretending to, and is grateful, right then, that he's facing away from Stella. He'd like to think he's keeping a poker face, but he can't be sure. What he does know is that his fingers clench so tightly on the side of the drawer he hears his knuckles crack. She doesn't know, he reminds himself. This is nothing to do with you, or Danny, or anything that happened. This is just Stella being Stella.

He takes a deep, silent breath. "That's nice," he says, and turns around to face her. "Have fun."

She frowns. "That doesn't bother you?"

"What you three do in your own time is your own business, as long as it stays this side of the law." He sits down on the edge of the desk, since it's obvious he's not going to get his chair back any time soon. "Just don't call me for the bail money."

"Of course not," she says, and smirks. "I know better than that. You'd just leave us to rot in jail."

"Good." He looks at her. "Anything else?"

"Where was your most memorable Fleet Week experience?"

"Forget it, Stella."

She stands up. "You know one of these years I'm going to get you to tell me," she says.

"Right." Mac watches her go, then reclaims his chair with a sigh and a shake of his head.




Stella and Aiden whisper and giggle to each other most of the day Tuesday, and when he goes into the breakroom at mid-afternoon to start a fresh pot of coffee, Stella is standing in the center of a circle that includes Aiden and Danny and Flack, along with a lab tech whose name he doesn't remember, telling a story about this time a few years ago when two Navy men got into a fistfight in the middle of Jack Dempsey's, all over which of them would get the privilege of going home with her for the night. "I thought they should have just both come along," she says with a shrug and a grin, "but by the time they gave me a chance to mention that, one of them had a black eye, and they were too pissed off to even consider it."

Aiden laughs and high-fives her, and Danny flashes one of his patented nervous grins and says something about doubling your pleasure while Flack snaps his gum and leers at Stella in a way that makes it all too clear what he's thinking. The nameless tech (Bonnie? Barbara? Something.) blushes and stares down at her mug of coffee.

Mac clears his throat, and they all glance up at him. All except for Danny, anyway, who stares down at his bottle of water without saying a word. There's a brief moment of silence, and then, when Mac goes over to the coffeepot, they return to their conversation. The tech (Brenda?), though, gets up and puts her mug in the sink, and slips out without another word, not looking him in the eye.

"So can I count on somethin' like that happening if I go down to the pier with you two ladies tomorrow night?" Danny asks, once the girl is gone and it's just them left in the room. There's a tense note in his voice despite the lightness of the question, or so Mac thinks. He could be imagining it.

It doesn't matter either way, he tells himself.

"When you go down to the docks with us," Aiden corrects.

"Fine, when. Is it?"

Stella drapes a friendly arm across his shoulder. "Only if you're lucky. Just stick with us and bat those baby blues, and you should be fine." They all burst out laughing at this. Mac puts in a fresh filter and watches as the coffee starts to drip.

"What do you think?" Stella says, and it takes him a moment to realize she's talking to him.

"Sorry?" he asks.

"You think we all have a good chance of scoring tomorrow night, Mac?" Stella asks.

"Stella, I get to watch, right?" Flack says to her.

She punches him in the shoulder, dismissive as if she were swatting away a fly. "Pig."

"Goddamn right. So do I?"

"Flack, you -- "

"Don't you four have work to do?" Mac asks.

Silence falls, sudden and decisive as a hammer blow. One by one they turn to look at him, all except Danny, and Mac stands up straight and takes a step away from the coffeepot.

"This is all very cute," he goes on, "but I know that at least two of you have lab results you're supposed to be reviewing, and that one of you" -- he looks at Stella -- "is supposed to be helping me review the new CODIS results, and one of you" -- Flack -- "has suspects to question in the Gallagher case."

"Mac, I'm sorry," Aiden begins. "We were just -- "

"You'll all have plenty of time to trade your little stories about Fleet Week after hours," he says. "Now it's time to get back to work."

Aiden and Danny exchange a glance, and Danny mutters, "Yes, sir," before getting up and following Aiden out of the room, head down in what must look to the rest of them like a chastened posture. Mac hasn't missed the angry, taunting note in his voice, though, and wishes he could call him on it.

Flack follows right after them, snapping his gum with perhaps more vigor than is strictly necessary.

Stella remains where she is. "All right," he says to her. "Just let me finish brewing the coffee, and then we can -- "

"You know, Mac," she says, "it's called a breakroom for a reason," and she's gone before he can formulate any kind of retort.




He has his own Fleet Week memories, but they're not to be giggled over in the breakroom or even alone in his office with Stella, not to be turned into dirty jokes for Danny's or Flack's edification. His experience of Fleet Week is one of the few things in the past that is still his, and he's not going to voice any of his memories, is not going to risk chalking them up as one more loss.

Most of the memories have blurred, uneventful nights and days spent in bars or playing tourist, only memorable at all because he was in the city, on American soil, and off board ship for the first time in months, and it was both novelty and relief. But some events do stand out.

His first trip ever to New York, when he's not quite nineteen, he spends most of the first afternoon sitting on a bunk on his ship, reading The Grand Design and glancing up every now and then, startled by the sudden deep quiet and wondering at all the small ship's noises he never noticed before.

That night, his battalion mates shame him into seeing the town, and he spends the evening watching a pale blonde take her clothes off in a dark bar near Times Square, a performance he would have enjoyed more if his eyes hadn't been fixed on the purple and green bruise spreading across her left upper arm. Later that week he does meet a woman who wants to take him home for the night, and he goes willingly, finding his way back to the ship in the stumbling dark of 4:00 a.m. Not all the strippers have bruises, of course, or wandering drug-glazed eyes, but it's the ones who do whose faces stick in his mind, who make him stare down into his drink and stir it uncomfortably, and think about field maneuvers or recite the Marine oath in his head.

Four years after that first visit to New York City, he's with Jack Abernathy, in some part of the city he's never seen before, one that feels very far away from the piers and his ship. He's not very drunk, not yet (or so he tells himself), but he's lost count of how many bars they've been to tonight, including one that makes electric blue margaritas from what looks like a Slurpee machine, and when he looks at himself in the men's room mirror two bars later, his mouth and tongue are still tinted a deep blue. They're somewhere in what he realizes, years later, is the East Village, and they come to a tiny pub whose name he recognizes from the Cummings poem, and he mutters the first line in a drunken slur.

They go in and order a round of beers, and the girl they meet there (dark hair and dark eyes, red mouth) likes them both, and it is the Village after all, or so she says.

They go home with her, to a small apartment a few blocks away where there are, thankfully, no roommates to contend with. At first it's mostly playful, light kisses and the girl moving back and forth between them to strip off their uniforms, and Mac isn't even sure that they're actually going to go through with it, that it's not some elaborate joke. Then Abernathy puts his hands on the girl's waist and steers her gently over toward Mac.

"Here now," he says, and snuggles up to her back so that she's pressed between them. "Him first, if you'd be so kind. Not that I don't wanna," he murmurs into her hair, "but he's been a long time without any affection."

Mac blinks at Abernathy, who offers him a lazy smile in return, and the girl looks up into his face. "Can't have that," she says softly, and reaches out for him; they tumble to the side of the bed, and Abernathy sinks to his knees behind her.

It's when she's sitting on Mac's lap, kissing him, and letting out occasional small gasps as he moves up and down and Abernathy fondles her from behind, that Abernathy slides one hand between her legs, and he's rubbing her but he's also got his fingers on Mac's dick at the same time.

Mac doesn't stop moving, but opens his eyes, and Abernathy is meeting his gaze in a deliberate, unblinking stare, and the smirk that sprawls across his face is anything but lazy. Mac thrusts into the girl, into Abernathy's searching hand, and when he shifts his grip on the girl's back to steady her, his hands find Abernathy's waist and dig in, and after that it's mostly just a blur: hands, and the girl's mouth. She comes soon after, with a sharp cry, and when she does Abernathy's grip tightens on him convulsively; his other hand slides into Mac's hair, stroking, and Mac thinks that he's never come so hard in his life.

After that he holds her while Abernathy fucks her, stroking her breasts and belly and kissing the side of her face as Abernathy presses his mouth to her nipples, teasing them into hard peaks. Somehow, in kissing and sucking at the girl, Abernathy's tongue finds Mac's hands, and he closes his eyes, shivering and trying not to pant too obviously.

Later, when the girl is curled up asleep with one leg hooked over Mac's and a hand resting lightly on Abernathy's stomach, and Mac can feel his eyes starting to drift closed, Abernathy slides out from under her fingers and leans over him, weight balanced on the palms of his hands. He waits, poised there, and Mac opens his eyes all the way and looks up at him. Then he bends forward and kisses him agonizingly deep, running his tongue over Mac's blue-stained mouth until Mac is trembling and arching up helplessly towards him.

Abernathy jerks him off nice and slow, Mac clutching handfuls of the bedsheets and biting back curses by the time he comes, his head a rush of alcohol and desire. Abernathy kisses him again, softer this time, then sinks down on top of him and rubs his dick against Mac's stomach until he comes, too. Afterward, he nuzzles into Mac's neck and falls asleep, arm draped comfortably around his waist. Through all of it, the girl never makes a sound, or stirs so much as an inch.

Mac drifts off right after Abernathy does, and doesn't remember anything else until he's woken by the clatter of a truck going down the street and the light of the rising sun beating on his closed eyelids. He nudges Abernathy awake, and they dress quietly, then leave the girl sleeping in the gray pre-dawn light (Abernathy bending to kiss her cheek and pull the blankets up around her shoulders before they go), and walk the avenue until they find a coffee shop that's open for breakfast.

What shocks Mac, even in his hungover state, is that the silence between them is comfortable rather than strained or awkward. When they both wake up a little more, they start talking about what they want to do today, and what tourist attractions they'd like to see before the week is over. It occurs to Mac later that this is the only time he and Abernathy ever touched each other in front of someone else.

There are other girls over the years, women as time goes on, but never again any that he shares with any of his shipmates, though he hears stories from the others, sometimes, and wonders. Sometimes it's hurried or unsatisfying, and sometimes he ends up regretting it; sometimes it's more pleasant, and he spends hours wrapped in a stranger's arms, in beds that aren't his though it's nice to be in a private residence again, to look at all the little things that make up a civilian life.

Once or twice they even spend some time sitting with him and talking, or walking around the city, and he remembers that as clearly as he remembers hanging up his dress jacket before sliding into bed next to the girl of the night, or fumbling with a condom wrapper as taxis honk and blare on the streets below. It's good, and it's the closest thing to promiscuous he ever is in his entire life, and it's only sometimes that he sees Abernathy when he closes his eyes.




And now he's NYPD, and Fleet Week is nothing more than a headache for a variety of reasons, and the sailors who come into town look younger every year, so young that he would swear he himself was never that much of an innocent, that he never wandered around the city with a half-desperate, half-thrilled please-don't-mug-me expression on his face. That he never went into battle with the shadow of adolescent acne scars still on his forehead, or with shaving cuts from getting rid of a beard that didn't really amount to anything anyway.

"Mac." Stella leans into his office. "I've got the CODIS reports." She still sounds grouchy.

He looks up from the paperwork he's been staring at for the past ten minutes, and pushes it to one side. "I'll be right there," he says, and stands up and reaches for his suit jacket.




"A million stories in the big city," Abernathy says. They're walking back toward the ship after their breakfast at the diner, to report in for the day and be accounted for before they head back out to continue their explorations of the city. Mac's thighs ache with every step he takes, and he thinks he's going to be walking funny for days, but he also thinks it was worth it. "Ain't that the way the expression goes?"

"Something like that, I think," Mac says.

"Right." Abernathy nods. "See, way I figure it, it's just like your string theory."

"Yeah, how's that?"

"All them stories? Shit, they gotta influence each other. Connections the people livin' 'em maybe don't even know about while they're happening. Like..." Abernathy waves one hand, as if to indicate the entirety of the street they're walking down, or maybe the entirety of the city itself. "You got your own story, right, but someone else's got a little piece of it, too. You do somethin', or somethin' happens to you, and it affects a whole bunch of other people, too. And maybe you won't never know all the sides of the story, but just your own small bit of it." Abernathy comes to a halt at the curb. "So what you think?"

"It's a theory," Mac says, and after a moment of consideration he smiles at Abernathy. "It's got potential."

"Yeah. Knew you'd like it." Abernathy grins at him, and then, as the light changes in their favor, begins to do a showoff soft-shoe across Eighth Avenue, untrained but graceful. Mac watches him for a minute, and this is how he'll often remember him in years to come, this soldier boy dancing in a strange city in his dress blues.

Then he realizes that the light is about to go green, and runs for it.




Abernathy was wrong, Mac thinks now. Not wholly wrong, of course; there'd been a ring of truth in his theory even back then, and Mac's come to recognize it as a valuable guideline when contemplating seemingly insoluble homicides. Where Abernathy had gone wrong was where many would-be philosophers go wrong, in assuming that his idea was absolute.

Now, some theories are true through and through, Mac will concede; no two ways about that. Galileo, for example, or Einstein; Darwin's theory of evolution, even the Church will back him on that one. But these are theories borne of science, of studied phenomena and predicted reactions, things that are able to be quantified. Things get much murkier when it comes to human behavior, as people are, lamentably, anything but predictable.

Some stories do touch others; some people may have an effect on others without ever realizing it. One act or decision, one word spoken or unspoken, can cause a ripple effect that the person who originates it may or may not ever be aware of. But it's not, Mac thinks, always the case: sometimes a man's acts are complete in and of themselves, and there are no unforeseen consequences that he'll ever have to answer for, no one to be touched by the story that he himself is not aware of.

Mac thinks that he's a perfect example of this. He could chart with great accuracy just how his actions and choices have, and have not, affected the people around him. If certain rare snap decisions have led to consequences he would rather not have been forced to deal with, he's since taken appropriate steps to correct this. That's the best anyone can do when faced with these difficulties, he believes; it is, in fact, the only right thing to do.

Take the situation between him and Danny, since it's the nearest example to hand: it ended up affecting only the two of them, and because of this the damage has been as contained as possible. If he had allowed things to go on much longer the way they had been, the ripple effect might have begun to spread, but he made sure that didn't happen. Now he's fine, and he's over it, and he's with Rose. Everything is fine. He doesn't know how Danny is doing, but as long as Danny is keeping his nose clean professionally (and so far he has been, ever since the close of the IAB investigation), his emotional state is no concern of Mac's.

That's not entirely true: he doesn't know how Danny is doing, not for sure, because he hasn't asked, but he could make some educated guesses. It's all there in Danny's silences, in the way he doesn't make eye contact if he can at all avoid it, and most of all it's there in the cold, polite way he speaks to Mac whenever they absolutely have to talk to each other. Danny looks at him with a stranger's icy eyes and speaks to him in a stranger's flat, distant tone. And that's all he really needs to know if he wants to know how Danny is doing, isn't it?

But it's not his fault, not really; he tells himself this. If their working relationship is not, at the moment, operating at its best, this is as much, or more, due to Danny's self-created fiascoes as it is to what passed between them in the spring. It'll get better with time, or it won't. That's up to Danny. Mac doesn't know if he can trust him ever again, or if he even wants to, and, thinking of that shattered trust, he reaches up and touches his face before he quite realizes what he's doing.

Phantom bruises, like the pain from a phantom limb, and he can still remember every mark left by Danny's fists, from his bleeding nose and split lip to the blooming purple bruise under his right eye. He recalls, reluctantly, how the blood smeared across his mouth when Danny kissed him after that, and how shamefully eager he'd been for the touch of his mouth even then, despite the pain and humiliation, and despite the knowledge that Danny had killed a cop, unreliable as ever, then gone running to IAB against Mac's direct orders.

Ever fucked a cop-killer before?

Everyone else at the lab, and Rose, had believed Mac's story about his beat-up face being an occupational hazard. Danny, the only other person who knows exactly how he really got the bruises, has never said a word otherwise, as far as Mac can tell. Stella knows he didn't get the cuts and bruises as the result of any altercation with a suspect, but she doesn't know how he did get them, either. What he finds worrisome is that, since their initial conversation, she's never said another word about the subject. This uncharacteristic silence is far less annoying than her usual strategy of nagging, but much more troubling. He doesn't know why she's chosen now, of all times, to fall silent.

But Stella is always Stella, steady and reliable in a way that someone like Danny can never be, and sometimes, in his more irrational moments, he's wished that he loved her in a different way than he does. But if he did -- or if she did -- then their relationship would be different, too, and she might not be the rock for him that she is; she might have left him long ago. Anyway, it's not as if love was the problem with Danny, either, or with Abernathy, and he tells himself again not to draw that parallel. The two are nothing alike; the situations are entirely separate, and dwelling on the past is a fruitless endeavor.

It does remind him, though, what he was thinking about when he got sidetracked into trying to puzzle all of this out: that Abernathy was wrong in thinking that his idea about ripple effects could somehow be bound up with Veneziano. It can't be, at least not always, and certainly not in his case. He's corrected his mistakes, and no one else has been affected, or is going to be. It's time for him, too, to look to the future.

He likes Rose, really he does, and Danny in the spring was a mistake all around.

ii. Impromptu Karaoke

In Flack's memory, Danny has almost always been a happy drunk. Flack can remember other nights when Danny has been hammered, when he's chattered away cheerily about anything and nothing, when he'll kiss anyone who gets within range, grope them and tell them how pretty they are, and get punched for his troubles, often as not. Not that it ever stops him: he bounces straight back up, like a Weeble, and moves onto his next target without so much as a backward glance. Or he'll start singing along with the jukebox, impromptu karaoke to Patsy Cline or Tom Waits in his slightly flat baritone, and if he doesn't know the words, he'll make up his own. "Danny boy," Aiden will tell him, "you are not the Piano Man. Sit down and have a nice glass of club soda." (And Danny will try to stick a hand down the front of her shirt, and she'll slap him and call him names.) These nights generally end with Danny either sliding into abject apology, or falling asleep at the table, snoring softly with peanuts stuck to his chin.

Not tonight, though. Tonight, a July evening like a blast furnace, Flack is seeing another version of drunken Danny, and he's pretty sure he doesn't like it. Danny sits slumped at the bar, a half-filled glass of something-or-other in front of him that's far from being his first drink. His glasses are askew, and his hair is sticking up at angles like he's been running his hands through it all day, and instead of the happy drunken leer that's usually plastered across his face after the alcohol's had time to work its way through his system, he just looks pissed off. Pissed off in a muddled way that, Flack knows, means all common sense has gone out the window. Get drunk in a mood like this, and you end up picking fights, or going home with all the wrong people.

He's not even sitting with the rest of them, which is the clearest sign of all that something's wrong. Instead, he's up here at the bar by himself, while Aiden and Stella sit at a table in the back and trade stories about old boyfriends. He's not sure if they've noticed Danny is off in his own world, or if they're just assuming that he can take care of himself, but either way, Flack feels compelled to stick around and keep an eye on him, if nothing else. Make sure he doesn't get himself into any of the brands of trouble that Flack can imagine all too clearly.

Not, he thinks, that he can do much good from here, leaning on the other end of the bar and chewing on a swizzle stick while he finishes the last of his beer. Talk to him, he tells himself. Sure. Why not? It's just Danny. Even if he's upset, it's not like he's Mac. It's not like he's gonna go ballistic on my ass. Worst that happens, he tells me to fuck off. Then I clock him and drag him back to the table, and make sure he gets home in one piece.

Fuck, when did Don Flack turn into a nursemaid?

With a sigh, he tips his head back, shaking the stein to get the last drips of beer out of the bottom, then sets the glass down, shoves the swizzle stick between his teeth, and goes over to do his good deed for the night.

"What's shakin', Messer?" he asks, and pounds Danny on the back, hard enough to make him lose his balance. "Sorry, man," he adds as Danny catches himself on the edge of the bar and settles back down.

"Not much, Flack," Danny says, not looking up from his drink. "I'm doin' fine."

"Yeah?" he says. "You don't look so fine. You look kinda...fucked up."

Danny smirks. "Problem is, I'm not fucked up enough," he says. "Three or four more of these oughta do it." He picks up his glass and waves it at Flack in a mocking little toast, then drains the remaining half-inch or so in one gulp. He sets it down when he's finished, and signals the bartender for a refill.

Flack watches this with interest, and not a little horror. "Okay," he says finally. "You wanna tell me why you're looking to get fucked up? Because, Messer, I'm telling you, if you get alcohol poisoning and I gotta take you to the hospital, I'm gonna beat the shit out of you the second you get out."

"Why am I looking to get fucked up?" Danny asks, ignoring the threat. He shrugs. "Why not? Got any bright suggestions for something better for me to do?"

"Another Guinness, thanks," Flack tells the bartender, then returns his attention to Danny. "Yeah. I don't know, maybe come over and sit with me and Aiden and Stella? Pace yourself a little?"

Danny snorts and waves a dismissive hand. "It's overrated. What the fuck I wanna do that for? The whole point is to get drunk, in case you haven't noticed."

"Drunk, not dead." Flack leans over and takes his glass away from him just as he's about to start it, and gives it a good sniff. "Jesus, what is this, anyway? Paint thinner?"

"Gin and tonic."

"Not so much with the tonic, I'm thinkin'."

Danny shrugs again. "I told 'em not to water it down too much. Can I have that back now?"

Flack sets it down reluctantly, and Danny picks it up and takes a swallow.

"So you gonna tell me what this is all about?" Flack asks after a minute.

"I got a better idea. How 'bout you fuck off and let me get drunk in peace?" Danny spits the words out through clenched teeth, and even though Flack already knew that he was pissed off, he's startled at the venom in his tone, and then equally surprised to see how his hand is shaking as he sets the glass down.

Flack stamps down hard on his earlier impulse to knock Danny out and drag him back to the table, even though he knows he could do it with one punch -- hell, at this point he could probably do it just by breathing on the guy -- and sits down on the barstool next to him, instead. "Tell ya what, Messer," he says. "I got an even better idea than that. I don't fuck off, and I also don't pound you into the ground like a railroad spike. And in return, you tell me what the fuck crawled up your ass and died."

He's taking a certain chance, he knows; if Danny continues to be obstinate, he really is going to have to punch his lights out. Not that he minds, but it will lead to certain complications, like Aiden and Stella, and like how they're going to get Danny home afterwards -- then again, that last is maybe already a complication, given the state he's in, so fuck it. Still, he's tense while he waits for Danny's answer.

Danny swirls the liquid in his glass a few times, watching it spin in circles, then says, "Shit, I don't know what the problem is, Flack. Take your pick. Could be that sweet little IAB investigation I went through a few weeks ago. Maybe it's the fact that I'm off the promotion grid. Maybe that Mac can't even look me in the eye anymore. Stares right through me, just like we ain't never -- he's real good at rewritin' history, tell ya that much. Or that I -- I ask him, that fucker, how we're doin' after I go to that goddamn shithole psych eval, if we're okay, and you know what he says?"

"No clue," Flack says, although he's sure it's not anything good, knowing how things have been going around here lately, and knowing Mac.

"He says, 'We'll see.' We'll see. And that's all he says. Doesn't tell me what he thinks of the eval, don't tell me nothin'. Just we'll fucking see."

Flack says nothing, unable to think of any response to this, and Danny doesn't wait for one anyway, just barrels on like he's been saving up the words for ages, which he probably has been.

"Might as well -- might as well wave his hand and dismiss me, like, oh, enough of that. Don't do me the courtesy of telling me 'bout any of his plans, just makes me hafta fuckin' guess like some kinda chump. Never mind how he hadda drop all his nasty lil' hints about how maybe he should'na hired me in the first place. Naw, don't bring that up again, just we'll see, and leave it all hangin' over my head some kinda fucking guillotine, how you like that?" Danny pauses for breath, and drains half the contents of his glass in one gulp, and sets it down on the bar, hard, before he turns to Flack and glares at him with watery, red-rimmed eyes. "Huh? You like that?" he asks. "That good enough for ya?"

"That's..." Flack studies his beer. "Yeah, I get it, Danny," he says. "No one's gonna deny you've had a pretty rough month of it. I just don't think sulking over here in the corner is your best solution." There are other things he wants to say, but he has no idea how to even begin, and doubts Danny would listen, even if he were able to find the words. The comforting platitudes that occur to him are just that, platitudes, and he knows that Danny would see right through them. He deserves better than that, Flack thinks, after all he's been through.

What Flack would really like to tell Danny is that it's okay, that everything will work out. That Mac will get over this little speedbump, and accept Danny back into the fold. That the IAB investigation will, sooner or later, become a thing of the past, and that Danny will find himself on the fast track to promotion again before he knows it. These are the things he would like to say.

But the last thing Danny needs right now is another lie.

"I don't know what to tell ya," Flack says. "Things usually get better again, though, you know?" And even as he says it, he thinks of Gavin, and he wonders. Because sometimes things don't get better, and sometimes good police get forced out of the department -- and Mac had a hand in that whole nightmare, too, didn't he?

"Yeah, sure," Danny says. "Things get better, and Mac will forgive me, and my future at CSU is gonna be all sunshine and fucking roses." He shakes his head. "That's a good story, Flack."

"Okay, look," he says. "I ain't gonna lie to you. I don't know how this is gonna work out or if it's gonna work out. But do you really wanna sit here all night and drink that shitty gin?"

Danny smirks. "Not if you got something better in mind, I don't."

"Yeah," Flack says, and he presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose, trying to think. "Yeah, I got something better in mind. What you need to do is get some fresh air. Whattaya say we take a little walk, try to clear your head?" He slams his beer stein down on the bar.

He's steeling himself for argument or protest, but Danny gets off the barstool without saying a word, and Flack claps him on the back again, once more nearly sending him nose-first to the floor. "Good man," he says. He glances over to where Stella and Aiden are sitting. They're talking more quietly now, huddled together. Girl talk, Flack thinks, and waves a hand at them until they both look up. "Walk," he mouths, and points at Danny. They look puzzled, and so he repeats it. Understanding dawns on Stella's face and she whispers something to Aiden; they both nod at him.

Instead of heading for the front door of the bar, Danny swivels around and starts walking toward the back. Flack follows him, thinking at first that Danny probably just needs to go take a piss or something, after all those drinks he's had, but Danny walks right past the men's room and on out through the back door. Flack follows him, wondering, but not willing to say anything. He's about to, is about to ask Danny where the fuck he thinks he's going -- Christ, he's so blind drunk he could have missed the men's room entirely, or be unaware that he's heading for the alley instead of the street -- but then he gets a good look at Danny's face, and something about the grim set of his mouth makes the words dry up in Flack's throat.

They get out into the alley and the door slams behind them. The heat of the evening hits Flack like a sledgehammer. Jesus, this time of night, you'd think some of it would have burned off by now. But the city draws heat like a terrarium and holds it; no wonder people go so crazy at this time of year. Flack thinks longingly of air conditioning or the beach.

Danny looks around, blinking a little bit. "So where you wanna walk to?" Flack asks him. "C'mon, what say we take a little stroll over to Chinatown? Maybe get some dim sum? I know a great place on Mott, the guy'll make us some of his specialties."

Danny shrugs. "Nah. Not hungry."

"Okay," Flack says slowly. "How 'bout -- "

"Why don't we just walk?" Danny says, and now Flack can hear the slur in his voice. "Figure out where we're goin' when we get there."

"Sure. Sure, that's fine, Danny."

"Yeah. Great." Flack looks at him for a moment, then starts to walk toward the head of the alley. Danny follows half a step behind, and at first when he brushes against Flack and then clutches at his shirt, Flack thinks that he's just stumbled, or is trying to keep his balance. Then Danny's hand slides up his ribcage, and Flack realizes this is something else altogether. He comes to a halt.

"Danny," he says.

"Yeah?" Danny steps up closer to him and presses against his back. His hand moves higher, brushing over Flack's chest.

"Whatcha doin'?" It's not that Flack minds, but seduction would be a bad, bad idea, given Danny's frame of mind right now. He remembers his earlier thought, that people in moods like this start fights or go to bed with anyone who'll have them, and he wonders, suddenly, how many nights Danny has had like this, and what he's been getting up to with no one around to keep an eye on him.

"Don't tell me you don't want to," Danny says, and breathes gin breath into Flack's ear as his fingers start to tease at his nipple through the shirt. Flack draws in a breath, and it almost turns into a gasp when Danny pinches, hard, and then rubs in a little circle.

"I..." Flack shuts his eyes for a second, and Danny's teeth brush his earlobe. He bites his lip and tells himself again that this is a bad idea, and manages to make himself turn around and push Danny away. "Danny, c'mon," he says. "Give me a break."

Danny takes one wobbly step away from him, staggering a little, then catches himself with a hand against the wall. "What, you gonna try to tell me you never done this before?" he asks. "That you're some kinda tremblin' virgin ain't never stuck it up some guy's ass? Give me a break."

Flack's no fan of euphemism; it's not the language that makes him flinch, or even what Danny is saying, but how he's saying it. His tone is pure contempt, pure venom, and there's a careless, angry flare in his eyes that makes Flack wish he'd never started this, that he'd left Danny to his own devices tonight. "No," he says. "I ain't saying that, but..." But don't do this to yourself. To me.

"You saying you don't wanna fuck me?" As he watches, Danny slides a hand down to his belt, and then begins to stroke his cock in a steady rhythm. Flack can see his erection right through his trousers, and feels an unstoppable answering surge in his own groin. "I'm real good. Real..." Danny squeezes himself. " Real good."

"Not sayin' that, either," Flack says.

Danny edges closer to him again. "Good," he says, and his hand slides between Flack's legs. "'Cause the hard-on would make you a liar."

"I just..." Flack tries to pull away, or at least that's what he tells himself, and ends up pushing himself into the palm of Danny's hand. "C'mon, Danny? An alley? Jesus Christ. You don't wanna do this."

"Sure I do." Danny backs him up a little more and rubs against him. "Why not an alley? You don't really want me in your apartment, do you?"

"I -- "

"And you don't wanna come to mine, now, who needs to go to anyone else's apartment?" Some other emotion flashes in Danny's eyes when he says that, some little edge that makes his voice crack, and it's not anger. Or not just anger. Flack stares at him, puzzled now as well as irritated -- and turned on as hell, God help him. Danny's fingers stroke over the head of his cock, making him arch again, and now the fingers of his other hand are back on Flack's nipple, pinching in a way that makes Flack's legs shake.

"'Less you got any other bright ideas," Danny says into the side of his neck, "seems to me this oughta do you just fine." His tongue slips along the pulse point and Flack gives up all idea of trying to resist. Okay, he thinks. Okay, then. He thinks briefly of Gavin, of screwing around with him in the backseat of a police cruiser or of stretching out with him on the couch in Flack's old apartment up in the Bronx, kissing until their lips were swollen, Gavin's guiding hand on his shoulder as he figured out how to touch and what felt good. Gavin's blessed sanity, and loyal got-your-back presence: that's what he needs right now, not to be here in this alley with Danny Messer, about to fuck the daylights out of him.

But he is here, and Danny is getting him crazy-hot, licking and biting his neck while he jacks him off, and somehow he's gotten Flack's zipper open without him noticing, because Danny's hand slides over his waist and then his fingers wrap around his bare cock. "Okay," he mutters. "Okay," and then he puts a hand on Danny's neck and bends to kiss him.

Danny twists away. "Nuh uh," he mutters, and bites down hard, making Flack yelp. "Here." He takes Flack's hand and moves it down to his crotch. Flack gives him a nice little squeeze and they fumble at each other for awhile, stroking until Flack is practically dizzy with it, unable to think straight. Danny doesn't give him a chance to think, is what it is, and maybe Danny doesn't want him to think, because if Flack were in his right mind he'd say no. He'd make Danny stop.

It's not even -- Flack will decide later, when his head is clear and when Danny doesn't have his hands and his teeth all over him -- that he dislikes the idea of fucking him. Under other circumstances, they could have had fun together. A little romp in the hay, that talented mouth of Danny's and a chance for Flack to introduce him to the joys of playing Good Cop/Bad Cop? That, Flack would have no problem with. But this feels like it's about something else, and Danny is burning with anger the whole time, and Flack can't believe for a second that he gets much joy out of it.

It ends up with Danny's face to the brick wall, hands raised high for balance and his legs spread like Flack is about to frisk him. Flack unzips his pants the rest of the way and pushes Danny's down just far enough so that they can fuck without either of them tripping at a crucial moment. He's holding him by the hips and rubbing into him, head of his cock up against Danny's ass, muttering, "This? Like this?" into his ear.

He tries to enter him slowly, to at least do that much, but Danny hisses, "Not like that," and shoves back hard against him, and Flack digs his fingers into Danny's hips and pushes all the way into him in one smooth thrust. Danny lets out a strangled gasp and Flack, his head tipped back, sees his fingers clench on the brick. For a second he stops, wanting to ask Danny if he's okay, if he needs to go slower. Before he can, Danny says, "What are you waiting for?" in a voice with a laugh in it, and moves a little. Flack forgets all about going slow and starts working him over good, thrusting in and out in a quick, uneven rhythm.

"You like it like this?" he whispers into Danny's ear, and reaches around to stroke his cock.

"Fucker, yeah, like that," Danny says. "I...oh, yeah." He presses himself into Flack's hand. "Motherfucker, make me feel it."

Still that angry edge in his voice, like this isn't just dirty talk, but something more, some way of getting his own back that Flack can't quite understand. He pushes forward hard and strokes his hand the length of Danny's cock, running his fingers over the head until Danny is groaning too hard to talk.

This has to be hurting him, but it suddenly occurs to Flack that maybe Danny wants it to hurt. Normally a realization like this would be enough to freeze Flack right where he stands, but by now he's too far gone. Danny's hot and tight around him, and the whole time they were feeling each other up, he kept bringing Flack right to the edge and then stopping with a little smirk on his face, so Flack thinks he's going to go out of his mind if he doesn't manage to get off soon.

Danny lets out another volley of curses and comes into Flack's hand, and then sort of sags forward against the wall. Flack is right on the verge himself now; another two or three thrusts is enough to push him over, and he bites down hard on Danny's neck when he comes, shoving him forward into the wall as he shudders and trembles.

He'd like to stay right where he is for at least a few minutes, collapsed against Danny's back and breathing hard, but after no more than a few seconds, Danny shoves him away and stands up straight. Flack manages to collect himself, more or less, and as he's shoving his dick back into his pants, he looks over at Danny to see how he's doing.

The son of a bitch looks perfectly calm, Flack realizes, even a little bored. He's glancing around the alley like he's looking for a bus or some goddamn thing, no sign in his face or his posture that he just got fucked hard up against a brick wall. "So what now?" Flack says after a minute, when he feels like he can talk without having to stop to catch his breath.

"Now?" Danny shrugs, smiling a little. "We took our walk. Who says we gotta do anything else?"

Flack sighs and shoves his hands into his pockets. "So I'm guessin' you're not interested in dim sum?"

"Nah, fuck that." Danny waves him away. "Think I'm gonna go home." The slur is back in his voice, and it's only now that Flack remembers how drunk he is.

I could still knock you out with one punch, Flack thinks. What he says is: "Okay, what say I put you in a cab? Will you at least let me do that much?"

Danny looks like he's about to balk, and Flack adds, "C'mon, Messer, be a sport."

"Okay," Danny says after a pause. "Fine. Long as you pay. And long as you can find a cab that'll go to Queens this time'a night."

"Sure, Danny," Flack says. He keeps one hand on Danny's arm as they head toward the street, because he wouldn't put it past Danny to just change his mind and wander off. The little bastard did raise a good point, though: how is he ever going to find a cabbie that's willing to take a drunk at all, never mind one that's willing to take him all the way to Queens? This could prove interesting, Flack realizes with a sigh.

For the first time all night, though, luck is with him, because when he manages to flag down a cab, the driver rolls the window down and leans out, and says, "Hey, Flack, you shithead."

Flack leans down to peer at the driver. "Lou!" he says with real delight. "How you doin'?"

"Not bad," Lou says. "You know. Everything's shit, but it's maintenance-level shit." They both snicker. "You in need of my livery services?" Lou adds.

Flack glances at Danny, who's ignoring both of them. "Um, not me," he says. "My buddy here's kinda drunk, and..."

"And you need to put him in a cab," Lou says.

"Yeah. Would you?" Flack says. "I don't think he's gonna puke or nothin', but you're gonna hafta take him to Queens."

Lou looks at him silently.

"Please? He's good police. He just...he's been havin' a rough week."

"Rough month," Danny mutters.

"I'll give ya forty bucks to do it," Flack says.



"Done." They grin at each other, and then Flack opens the door and manhandles Danny into the backseat. "You behave yourself now, Messer," he says, then slams the door and goes around to the front to settle up with Lou.

"Thanks again, man," he says, peeling off the bills. "I owe ya one." Maybe this will even assuage some of his guilt.

"Damn straight." Lou leans out and punches him in the arm. "Night, Flack."

"Night." He waves, and then Lou puts the cab into gear and pulls out.

Flack watches until he can no longer see the lights of the cab, then he turns toward the bar again and doesn't look back, trying to ignore the cold in the pit of his stomach. He wants another beer and he wants to call Gavin. He needs to talk to someone who has his best interests at heart, and who will look him in the eye and tell him that, even if everything isn't going to be all right, they'll still be there for each other, that even if he screws everything up, he'll never be left all alone.

iii. What Not to Wear

Danny is doing all right, really he is. He's had no problem at all keeping himself busy this summer, with boys who bat their collegiate eyelashes at him and smile, and are willing to go wherever he leads, or with men who assess him in businesslike fashion in bars and at parties, and of course back in June there were all the sailors in town. He ended up getting it on with two different Navy men on two different nights, and he could have had a Marine, too, but once the guy said he was Corps, Danny felt all his enthusiasm drain away. He excused himself to go take a piss a few minutes later, and then just never came back. He didn't need any more of those kind of headtrips, no matter how dark the sailor's eyes were, or how good Danny thought his lips might have looked wrapped around his dick.

Women do the trick, too, if one happens to catch his eye, or if there are no men around who appeal or if he just plain wants something farther removed from what he's trying to forget. Which is kind of -- okay, a lot -- stupid, because sex is sex. The equipment may change, but how he feels about it doesn't, nor does his ability to smile and seduce. So when he sees a dark-haired girl in Benny's Burritos one night who makes his cock twitch, he turns the full force of his charm on her, and two hours later, in one of the back hallways at Coney Island High, he has her skirt hiked up around her waist and has gotten her to step out of her panties, and is on his knees in front of her, tonguing her clit while she digs her nails into his scalp and moans. After she comes he pushes her up against the wall and fucks her from behind, and when he's done he kisses her on the cheek and zips up his pants, and then leaves before she can collect her thoughts enough to ask him to come home with her.

There are rare nights, too, when no one clicks for him, or when he simply can't muster the energy, and on nights like these there's always booze or even covertly-purchased pills that make his head buzz and his thoughts break up into little bits and float away to the ceiling like baby spiders. He doesn't take the pills too often, because that's a path he doesn't want to go down ever again, not after his experiments with coke back in the Tanglewood days, but as an occasional thing it's nice, and Christ, he needs something, doesn't he? Mostly it's the booze, and that he can handle, even if his head does ache fiercely all the next day, and if he turns pale at the mere mention of food.

He can't do this every night -- the sex or the booze or the pills, any of it -- of course, because sometimes he has to work at night, and sometimes he's just too fucking tired to bother. But he does it as much as he can. One way or another, he manages to fill up all his days and nights.

At times, when he's not able to believe his own lies about how he doesn't think about Mac anymore, he's at least still able to comfort himself with the reminder that he no longer cares. Despite the little talk he had with himself up at the Reservoir on the first day of summer, this isn't as always as easy as it appears on the surface, or as Danny believes it should be. But dammit, he's doing the best he can; that's all he can ask of himself, even if his best never seems to be quite good enough for anyone else.

Still, there are always the boys and girls, none of whom Danny ever regrets except for when the sex is lousy. He feels sort of guilty, sometimes, about turning the blinkers of his charms on Flack, because he knows Flack was worried about him that night. Or, if not exactly worried, irritated with his sloppy drunkenness.

Then again, he figures that Flack wanted him, or he wouldn't have gone ahead and done it. There was mutual consent, and if Danny now concedes that fucking his co-workers isn't always the best idea, at least Flack hasn't acted any differently around him since that night. Anyway, Flack is just par for the course; everyone wants Danny.

Almost everyone.

The only time Danny has gotten anything close to a reaction out of Mac was the morning they were all joking around about Fleet Week. And that wasn't directed at him in particular, but at the entire group. It just didn't carry the same personal frisson of satisfaction that a more pointed reaction would have, like Mac's response to him that day in the locker room did.

Danny can't stop himself from wondering if Mac is still seeing that woman from the coffee shop: Rose, he now knows her name is, because he looked it up in the witness reports. He doesn't know, and neither does Aiden; and Stella, the one person in the lab most likely to have some knowledge of Mac's after-work activities, never says a word about it. Perhaps she talks about it with Mac out of Danny's hearing, or perhaps she's been shut out too, and knows as little as he does. Danny can't think of any way to ask her, or even to hint around about the topic. So it's become, like so much else around the lab, part of the Great Unknown. Maybe this is just as well; after all, as Danny likes to remind himself, he doesn't actually care what Mac does so long as he doesn't fire him.

What he has noticed is that Mac is, without a doubt, not wearing his wedding ring these days. The possibility existed, at least at first, that maybe he was just getting it cleaned or repaired or something, or that maybe he had just forgotten to put it on one morning -- this latter, admittedly, was less likely, because before all this the only time Danny had seen Mac without his ring was that time they went to the gym together. Otherwise, he never even took it off when they fucked, which Danny hadn't given too much thought to at the time, but now, in the wake of Rose, strikes him as one of those little things he maybe should have been more attuned to.

What's also certain, and in some ways even more shocking to Danny (and to the lab at large, not to mention more noticeable), is that for several scattered days, Mac has come to work without wearing a tie. He looks strange this way: still mostly pulled-together and authoritative, but odd. And there's something...Danny isn't all that up on his fashion terminology, but before this Mac always looked, not stylish, but like he knew how to dress. Now there's something off, and after the third or fourth time Mac shows up apparently having left his tie at home, Danny comments on this to Aiden, expecting to get laughed at or slapped in the head. Instead, Aiden looks thoughtful, then puts down her lab reports and strolls off for what she terms "a little surveillance." When she gets back, she nods at Danny. "You're right," she says.

"Yeah?" he asks. "So how come?"

"'Cause he's wearing a suit jacket," Aiden says, tugging at the lapels of her own jacket. "It's meant to be worn with a tie. Without one, it doesn' still hangs okay, but he looks all unfinished."

Danny snorts laughter, looking up at the ceiling and shaking his head. "Yeah, ain't that just all kinds of appropriate?"

Aiden raises her eyebrows, but doesn't comment. "Anyway, what he should be wearin', if this is the look he's going for, is a jacket that don't need a tie to complete it. Somethin' more casual."

"Yeah, that'll be the day." Mac without a tie is disturbing enough; Mac in anything more casual would be terrifying.

"Never say never, my friend." Aiden resumes her seat at the computer. "Never thought I'd see him leave off the tie in the first place, so who knows?"

"Or his wedding ring," Danny blurts out before he can stop himself.

Aiden looks up from the keyboard. "Huh," she says, after a long pause, during which Danny can feel his heart start to race in his chest, a quick flutter that almost makes him sick to his stomach.

That's all she says, though. He's not exactly as grateful for this as he would have thought, because now he looks at her and wonders what's going on in her head. What questions isn't she asking him?

The Monday after this conversation takes place, Mac comes to work in a gray jacket and an open-collared blue shirt that Danny's never seen before. When he stops by the lab to ask a question about DNA trace evidence from a murder on Cornelia Street (Danny busies himself at one of the microscopes across the room, watching out of the corner of his eye), Aiden looks him up and down once or twice, but says nothing and answers him in a calm voice. After he leaves, she sidles over to Danny and mutters, "See?"

"See what?" Danny adjusts the focus, not looking up.

"Different kinda jacket. Whole new look. Just like I told you."

"That's great, Aiden," he says. "So why don't you get your own fashion show on cable or something, huh?"

Aiden punches him in the shoulder, hard, and tells him to go fuck himself, and spends the rest of the morning in stony silence.

Mac wears new jackets and open-collared shirts all that week, and by the Monday after, it's a pretty settled thing in the lab that this is his new look. There's a lot of speculation behind Mac's back, none of which Danny participates in, and no one seems about to comment on it to Mac's face, which is probably just as well. Aren't we all so casual now? he thinks resentfully, studying Mac from across the catwalk one afternoon, and that night he goes home and stands in front of his closet, and sorts through his clothes.

For no concrete reason, except that maybe Mac's change of attire made him think of it, he's just sick to death of these stupid boxy jackets and shirts. He's worn them all this time because he thought they were a good compromise between the professionalism Mac seems to expect and the kind of thing Danny could stand to wear. Among other things, they've let him get away without wearing any of the ties he hates so much. On the other hand, if Mac can go casual, and if it's not against the department dress code (which it's not; he checked before he went home), then why can't he?

He comes in the next morning wearing a nice pair of jeans and a casual cotton shirt. Aiden, who still seems to be in a bad mood, mutters something under her breath and then goes back to ignoring him, while Mac hikes his eyebrows almost all the way up to his hairline when they run into each other in the kitchen, but doesn't say a word. Stella, though, when she stops by his office to ask him about a murder they've been working in Battery Park City, ruffles his hair and tells him how cute he is, and asks if he's been sneak-reading her fashion magazines again, or if this is something he came up with on his own.

"All me," he says, and has to smile.

He feels, he thinks, looking at himself in the men's room mirror later that day, cold and good and golden, how he hasn't felt for a long time, and he's missed it.

He's his own man again; he answers to no one but himself, and no one can touch him without his say-so.

iv. Twentieth-Century Man

Stella has never been good at telling herself comforting lies. Sometimes she's wished for this skill; she can never decide if its lack has saved her more trouble than it's brought her, or if it's the reverse that's true. On the other hand, comfort based on self-delusion is no true comfort at all, and this is what she tells herself when she lies awake at night worrying or fuming, or when she sees, and has to shake her head at, all the varied ways people are capable of deluding themselves.

Hope, she thinks, is sometimes a lie and sometimes not; the trick is telling when it's which, and she tries not to get the two mixed up. When Mac decided to reopen the Sullivan case and she saw a spark of the man he used to be, back in the twentieth century, she had hope that he might get some of his old spark back. Anything, she would take any of it; enthusiasm for investigative justice was a good start.

When she finds out that he's taking that woman from the coffee shop out for a drink, she wants to hope, wants to be happy for him. And she even manages to be, at least for a little while, for as long as it takes to divest him of his tie and tease him, and watch him sigh and roll his eyes and get all abashed under her touch. For a little while, it's okay. But after she leaves him alone in the office, on her way to her own date, a little needle of worry worms its way into her mind and settles down to stay. It becomes stronger, for no reason she wants to immediately pinpoint, when she thinks of Danny pushing past her on the stairs with his head bowed, and of the careless expression on Mac's face when he shoved Danny's psych eval to one side.

Bad times had been coming all spring, and maybe now they were here. She thinks about this the whole way uptown in the cab, trying to tease out the real meaning behind Mac's "It's time" statement. She isn't sure she likes where these thoughts are taking her, and tries to put them out of her mind as she steps out onto the sidewalk in front of Union Pacific.




"Life isn't fair, dear," Sister Theresa had said to her one night when she was ten, sitting in St. Basil's kitchen and watching Sister make oatmeal cookies for the next day's lunches while she did her social studies homework. "But the world can be wonderful. The sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be."

Stella remembers tilting her head, thinking this over as she tried to figure out the meaning of the words. It was a lot different from the things the nuns usually told them in class or when they were going to Mass on Sundays, but something about it made sense. It was like...Stella frowned. God expected people to help themselves, which only seemed right; Sister Margaret was fond of telling the story about the city that got flooded, and the man who kept insisting that God would save him, even when a rowboat and then a helicopter showed up to help him, and how surprised he was when he ended up in heaven.

But sometimes, even when people did help themselves, things ended up not working out anyway. So the world wasn't fair all the time, and it must have been God who made it that way. On the other hand, He had also made hummingbirds and the trees in the woods around St. Basil's, and He had given Stella what Sister Theresa always assured her was a great right hook.

When she looked at it that way, Stella thought that it made sense, or it almost did. She'd have to think about it more later.

As an adult, Stella remembers nodding and asking Sister Theresa if she could have some of the cookies now. She never thanked her for that piece of advice, and maybe she should have; it's one of the truest things anyone has ever told her.




The morning after their respective dates, Mac is all business. This doesn't surprise her, nor does the fact that he doesn't so much as mention his evening out until she brings it up for him.

"So," she says, and leans against the window in the car when they're on their way to a scene.

He looks over at her warily, but doesn't say anything.

"How was your date?" she prompts, once it's clear that he's not going to give her even an inch.

"Oh. Fine," he says. "It was fine."

"Fine," she repeats. "So...does 'fine' mean you're going to see her again?"

"I..." He shrugs, not taking his eyes off the road. "I don't know. She's a nice woman."

"Fine, think maybe you want to give me something a little more descriptive here, Mac? Maybe put that big vocabulary of yours to good use?"

"Stella..." He shakes his head. "What do you want me to say?"

"Some details would be helpful," she says. "Where did you go, for starters?"

He sighs. "Quartino. It's down on Peck Slip. We had drinks."

"Uh huh." She nods encouragingly.

"And...we talked. Got to know each other."

She's tempted to ask him how Rose took the whole Claire thing, but decides not to ask him about that. It's still such a delicate subject, but maybe he'll bring it up on his own if she gives him just a little bit of breathing room. "And then?" she asks.

"And then..." He pulls up to a light. "It was getting late, so I walked her home."

"Spoken like a true gentleman," Stella says, and smiles at him, even though he's still not looking at her. "And did you score?"

She expects him to object to this, expects to hear him say, "Stella," in that tone of voice he always uses when she's gone one step too far over the line, to ask her how she could even think such a thing. What she doesn't expect is what happens: there's dead silence in the car; Mac doesn't say a word, and when she looks at him again, his jaw is tight and stiff with tension.

"Mac?" she says. The silence continues; there's no indication that he's even heard her. "Oh my God, you did," she says after a moment. "You did score."

And now he does say, "Stella," sharply, and glances at her out of the corner of his eye.

"What?" she asks. "You're not denying it."

"That doesn't mean -- "

"If you hadn't, you would have said 'no' right off the bat," she says. "And then you would have lectured me about how inappropriate that is, and how could I think you would do something like that on the first date, don't I know any better?"

At that, he does look over at her, and there's something simultaneously resigned and amused in his expression. "You know me too well," he says at last in a low voice.

"I knew it." She waves a hand at him. "I knew it, I so did."

He shakes his head.

"So?" she says.


"So how was it?"

"Stella, I..."

"Oh, come on," she says. "You can't just throw that out there and -- "

"I didn't throw it out there," he says. "You forced it out of me, and if you think that means I'm going to sit here and let you drag the details out of me, too, then you're very sadly mistaken."

The anger in his voice makes her stop dead, makes the smile fade from her face. "Okay -- " she begins.

"You want to talk about 'inappropriate,' Stella?" he says, talking over her. "That's inappropriate. Talking about something so private, and -- "


" -- it didn't even...I didn't..."

"Okay, Mac. Okay."

He shuts his mouth abruptly.

"I'm sorry I pried into such a touchy subject," she says, clenching her fists.

"Just forget it."

"Consider it forgotten," she says, and they're both silent all the rest of the way to the scene.




She never should have said a word to Aiden; she never should have done that. Normally she doesn't ever tell Mac's secrets to Aiden or to anyone. She doesn't even talk about the things that probably aren't secrets. But Aiden, who knows about the date, catches her at a vulnerable time, just after she and Mac have gotten back to the lab, after they've spent an entire afternoon in tense, uncomfortable silence, speaking to each other only when it was absolutely necessary.

Even though, as far as Stella knows, Mac will never find out about her gossiping to Aiden, she feels guilty about it afterwards, anyway. But it didn't seem like such a very big thing at the time, or at least that was what she told herself. Maybe it was just a rare moment of vulnerability, resentment bubbling up out of nowhere, and she's never said a damn word about him to anyone for years, at least not anything about the numerous ways in which he frustrates the hell out of her, and maybe right then she's suddenly just too tired to care. So when Aiden makes a passing remark about Mac's date and then jokingly asks Stella if she thinks he got lucky last night, Stella shrugs and smiles, and says, "You'd have to ask Mac, but judging from his reaction when I asked him, I'd say he probably did."

Aiden's eyes widen. "Really? You're kidding."

"Nope." Stella shakes her head. They're standing at the sink in the women's bathroom. "Well. He didn't actually say that he did, but he got all quiet and embarrassed. You know how it goes: if he hadn't, he would have just said no, and that would have been the end of it."

"But he didn't?"

Stella shrugs. "He certainly didn't say no."

"Wow." Aiden is still shaking her head in wonder as she walks off, and maybe, Stella tells herself, she didn't even really flat-out betray the secret so much as hint around. Because what she said to Aiden is true: he never denied it. But then, he never said he had, either. Not in so many words.




Stella is scheduled for a visit to the morgue after this, while Mac stays behind at the lab and starts to run some tests. After the morgue, it's back to the lab for her, too; they're both going to be pulling a late night. Thinking about this, she decides to stop in to see him before she leaves.

When she knocks on his office door, he's going through a stack of papers calmly enough, but his expression is wary when he looks up at her. "Hey," she says.


"I'm going to head down to the morgue right now. As soon as I get back, we can start working the evidence."

"That's fine," he says.

"Mac..." She walks into the office and closes the door. "I'm sorry if I gave you a hard time about your date. I just took me by surprise, that's all."

"I suppose I did," he says. "And I'm sorry if I...snapped at you."

She waves him away. "Don't worry about it. Mac?"


"Was this...was it the first time you've been with someone since -- since everything?" She looks him in the eye as she asks it, half-convinced that he's going to lose his temper again, but she wants to know.

"What?" Mac says. There's a pause, during which she braces herself. She can't read the expression in his eyes, not at all; for a moment he looks far away. Then he shakes his head and seems to come back to himself, and says, quickly, "Yes, yes. Of course."

She nods. "So you're a little wigged right now. That' know, Mac, it's normal." She reaches across the desk and puts a hand on his arm.

"Is it?" he asks, and the lost tone in his voice tears at her.

"Completely." She smiles at him. "I hate to break this to you, Mac, but on this one issue, you're perfectly normal."

"Well, I..." He smiles a little. "That's something, I suppose."

"You bet it is," she says. "Now, there are two other important questions." He raises an eyebrow at her. "One, did you remember how? And, two, did you practice safe sex?"

This is something of a risk; she has no reason to expect that he won't lose his temper with her all over again. She's hoping he won't, though, and in fact, he turns bright red and looks away, and says, "Of course."

She pats his arm. "Good man."

He looks at her, and for a moment she thinks he's going to say something else, but then he moves away from her hand and glances at his watch. "You really should get to the morgue, you know."

"I'm on it." She stands up, and he does, too.

"I'm going to go change," he says, "and then I'll get everything set up. I'll be ready by the time you're back."

She's tempted, as she frequently is, to salute, but she just walks with him out of the office, then takes off for the morgue. Maybe, she thinks as she leaves, it'll be okay after all, and she tries to push away the remaining prickles of worry and guilt.




Mac isn't in the lab when she gets back, which surprises her, and he isn't in his office, either. But his jacket is still draped over the chair and the lights are still on, so he must be around somewhere. She frowns for a minute, thinking, and then goes looking for him.

She finds him in the men's locker room; it's a good thing there's no one else in there, because she barges into the room without thinking twice about it. Mac is sitting on one of the benches with his head bowed, very still and very silent. She approaches him and says his name, and when he looks up, she can't help letting out a gasp.

"Mac," she says. "Mac, Jesus Christ, what the fuck -- "

"Stella," he says, blinking at her through livid bruises, and she thinks the split lip is making it hard for him to talk. "I -- "

"What happened?" She has to stop herself from touching him.

"It..." He touches his cheek, wincing, and looks away. "It was...I had a minor altercation," he says at last. "It's nothing."

"It is not nothing," she says. "Mac, God, your face. Who did this to you?" Whoever it was, she thinks, she'll fucking kill them. How dare they touch her partner?

There's silence. Mac takes a deep breath and then says, "A...a suspect."

"A suspect," she repeats.

"Yes, a suspect." He looks up at her.

"What suspect?" she asks. "Where? There's no one here; you haven't been questioning anyone while I was gone. And if someone had jumped you in the box..." She stops, too confused to finish the sentence. Just what is going on here?

"It was a suspect," he says again. "That's all -- "

"No, that's not all." She glares down at him. "This story doesn't add up, Mac, and someone beat the shit out of you while I was gone, so clearly -- "

"Stella, enough." He stands up. "It was a suspect, all right? A suspect. That's what happened, and that...that's all anyone needs to know. End of story." His chest rises and falls quickly with his breathing, as if he's just been running.

She stares at him, scared now, along with angry and confused.

"Please," he says in a softer voice. "It's's just my face, all right? I'm not hurt otherwise. And...I'd really like it to be a suspect when people talk about this." This last part is barely audible.

"Okay," Stella says finally, after thinking it over. "Okay, it was a suspect. If that's what you want it to be, I'll accept that and not ask any more questions."

"That's what I want," Mac says, and his breathing is still coming in pants, harsh small gasps that make her wish she could sit him down and put her arms around him, and make him tell her what's really going on, like she could have once. He would have squirmed and protested and probably gotten pissed off at her, but in the end he would have told, at least admitted to the bare outlines of whatever was troubling him. But it's been too many years and too many things left unsaid, and he'll still accept her anger, and even her prying to an extent, but her tenderness is something he'll no longer allow himself the comfort of. Come to that, she'll no longer allow herself the risk of offering it.

And so here they are, she thinks, with a flash of bitterness: trapped and lying to each other.

Mac isn't looking at her now, but at his hands: hands which, she sees as she follows his gaze, are uncut and unbruised. Whoever marked his face was someone he didn't bother -- or didn't dare? -- to defend himself against. She files this fact away to consider later, and says, "All right, then."

He nods and looks up, and she adds, "But if you ever want to talk -- "

"Stella," he says, the way he does whenever she's gone too far, or when he's trying to convince himself she has.

"I'll be here. That's all," she says, and looks at him until he meets her eyes. His gaze now is carefully blank.

"Fine," he says at last.

"Okay." She takes a deep breath. "You might want to wash your face. While you do that, I'm going to go set up the tox screening, so I'll meet you there."

"Right, I'll do that," and it's only when she's nearly to the door that he says, "Thank you," almost too low for her to hear it.

"You're welcome," she says. She doesn't turn to look back at him, but just leaves and goes to the lab, and though his face is the source of much speculation the next day -- everyone seems to believe the cover story, but it's cause for talk even so -- the two of them never say another word about it.




The summer goes on, and as they head into the end-of-July stupor, Stella keeps on turning a number of things over in her mind without ever coming to any solid conclusions. Things have been quiet, and on the surface everything seems like it's fine, but she's not sure that it really is. Mac has continued to date Rose, and to any outsider he must appear perfectly content; this must seem like a good step forward. She's not sure about that, either, though, and she has no one to whom she can turn with her worries.

She knows how these things go because she knows Mac, and she can see the too-bright, false note in his attitude toward Rose and toward the entire subject of dating in general. There was a time, even after 9/11, when she could read him with some degree of accuracy, but she's felt him slipping farther and farther away all year. He's been distracted and preoccupied even for Mac, and she's watched him skirt closer and closer to the edge of some cliff.

There have been too many times when they're on the job, going back to even before he dove back into the dating scene with a vengeance, when he's either not been paying attention or much too angry. She thinks of their case down at the docks, how easily he could have been killed if she hadn't grabbed him in time, and of his scary anger during that thing with the United Nations. She really thought, that time by the limousine, that she was going to have to grab him, that he was about two seconds away from doing something stupid. He's always been impatient with perps, so that's nothing new, but she can't shake the thought that he's now getting way too close to actual police brutality.

And then there's Rose, and his calm insistence that he's happy to be seeing her and everything is going well seems entirely at odds with the tension he displays at all other times. For some people, that wouldn't seem unreasonable; they're able to compartmentalize and separate their personal life from their professional one. But that's not Mac, Stella knows, and it never has been.

She's surprised, even now, that he actually slept with Rose on the first date, and even more surprised that he's continued to see her -- although maybe that last part makes sense, because Mac is a gentleman, and probably thinks it would be unkind to take a woman out again after he's been to bed with her. There is, of course, also a less cynical interpretation of this behavior: that Mac genuinely likes Rose, and wants to be taking her out. This is what Stella would like to think, but whenever she considers it, it seems too much like one of those comforting lies. She remembers, again, Mac saying It's time that first night he took her out. That's what sticks in Stella's head, because she knows him: if he decided it was time, then it was time, and he would stick to that no matter what. So he dates Rose these days, and he's stopped wearing his wedding ring.

She could kick herself for that conversation they had months ago about the ring, because she thinks she should have realized that Mac would take her questions as prescriptive, rather than as mere curiosity. She should have guessed he would take it to heart in all the wrong ways, and go too far. All she'd been doing was trying to find out if he wore it because he truly still wanted to, or if it was because he felt it would be somehow obscurely sinful to take it off, that he was letting guilt and duty guide his actions.

She'd just wanted to know, had wanted, if it was the latter, to tell him not to tear himself apart over it. What Mac had heard in her question, and she might have guessed this, was: What is wrong with you that you don't take it off? And so he had, for Rose or for whatever he imagined the world was thinking when they looked at a widower of not quite four years who still wielded his wedding ring the way he did his detective's badge.

And now Mac doesn't wear a tie anymore, either, and she thinks of all the times she teased him, how many times she referred to them as "those goddamn ties of yours." How she thought he needed to loosen up. For all that he's taken on a more casual air, with the sports jackets and fashionable shirts and lack of ties, he's no more relaxed than he ever was, not inside, where it counts.

He never needed to loosen up: never, ever, and it hurts her to see him try. In doing so, he seems to have gotten farther away from her than he's ever been, even in the days right after 9/11 when he was just barely functioning, and all the years when he's been little more than an insomnia-ridden, caffeine-addicted zombie.

Then there's Danny. The entire lab seems to be operating under storm warning conditions these days, and when she thinks of the eye of that storm, it seems to her that Danny is there just as much as Mac is.

She knows all about Tanglewood, and all about the argument the two of them had over that one case that Danny insisted on running with even after Mac told him to drop it. The bits she wasn't there for she heard about later, and she knows, of course, about the Minhas shooting; sometimes it seems that all of NYPD knows about that. Like everything else important that happens around here, neither man directly affected will discuss it.

Danny skulks around the hallways like a ghost, looking careworn and paler with each passing day. Since the end of May, since he was cleared by IAB, there's been something too bright, too determinedly cheery in his demeanor whenever he's around Stella or the others, a good cheer that's at odds with the ashen tone to his skin and the way he never speaks, Stella has noticed, unless someone else addresses him first. And there are too many mornings when he squints at bright lights or flinches at every little noise, or can barely seem to keep his eyes open. At these times, she wonders what he's doing with himself in his off-hours, but, because she doesn't exactly want to know, she never asks. Meanwhile, Mac is like a parody of a Marine, quieter and more serious than ever, for all his open-collared shirts and bare left hand, and phone calls from Rose.

All these things together make a pattern, something that Stella can almost grasp. The pieces are all there if she wants to fit them together, but she doesn't want to, though her detective's mind will not leave it alone, and worries at it in quiet moments. The pattern is one she could see if she looked hard enough, like those puzzles where you're supposed to find the hidden Indians; the thought -- the solution -- is already there in her head, something about Mac and Danny and the Minhas shooting, but something more than that, too.

Once Danny was Mac's golden boy, his hand-picked protege, and now he's not. The fall from grace hasn't been easy on either of them, and maybe the explanation is as simple as that, but Stella can't stop herself from wondering.




On a Friday night at the beginning of August, Stella sits at a corner table in Sullivan's and sips at a mojito, a perfect drink for this steamy summer night. Aiden and Flack are around somewhere, possibly playing pool in the back, and Hawkes has said he'll try to stop by later, after he finishes some work; she hopes he will, because she needs a dose of his sanity and good humor. Danny, though, is conspicuous by his absence, and Stella suspects they won't see anything of him tonight.

Mac told her earlier, looking at one of the light boards in his office the whole time he was talking, that he and Rose would be stopping by Sullivan's for a drink before they went out to dinner. Stella suspects that this plan came about at Rose's insistence, because it would never be Mac's idea. He's brushed Stella off or simply pretended not to hear her every time she's made even vague mention of wanting to meet Rose, or suggested that it might be nice to bring her around some night. Now Rose must be wanting to meet Mac's co-workers, to see more of his life, and if she had to guess, she would suppose that Mac has finally reached the limit of excuses he can reasonably make.

She takes another sip of her drink and glances at her watch. They should be here soon and, knowing Mac, they'll be exactly on time, if not a few minutes early.

The door swings open, and when Stella looks up, Mac is standing there with Rose. What strikes Stella immediately is the discrepancy in their body language: Mac is holding himself stiff and straight, posture ramrod-perfect, while Rose leans into him, talking and gesturing.

Mac nods, then looks around the bar. Stella waves until she catches his attention, and Mac nods to her, then begins to thread his way through the crowd with Rose at his side. "Hey there," Stella says when they reach the table.

"Hello," Rose says, and smiles at her, a bright, nervous flash that Stella remembers a little bit from the only other time she talked to the woman, back at the crime scene at the coffee shop.

"Well," Mac says, and there's a pause as they both look at him. He clears his throat and puts a hand on Rose's arm. "Rose, this is my partner, Stella Bonasera. Stella, this is Rose Whitely."

Rose smiles at her again and holds out her hand. "It's so good to meet you for real," she says. "Well...under better circumstances, anyway."

Stella sets down her drink and reaches out to take Rose's offered hand, greeting her and trying to smile through her disquiet. "It's a pleasure," she says.

v. Insects in Amber

Mac is halfway surprised that the universe doesn't implode when Rose and Stella meet. He can't, after all, think of two more different people. Ever since earlier this week, when Rose brought up the subject of meeting his co-workers for a drink and it became clear that she wasn't going to take no for an answer, he's been dreading this, has been hoping that, by waiting until the last minute to bring up Sullivan's, Stella and the others would have made alternate plans by then, and that he'd have to tell Rose the whole thing was a no-go. Unfortunately, this is summer, and Sullivan's on summer Fridays is as near to a regular thing as they can make it with their often erratic schedules, so he found himself trapped into this anyway.

Once he realized there was no getting out of it, he began to pray for some red ball case that would come up suddenly and that would, God willing, keep him buried in work from now until Monday morning. In between, he was trying to imagine what would happen when Rose and Stella sat down and started talking to each other. In all of his worst-case scenario visions, he kept coming up with things like Stella quizzing Rose about what the sex was like, and Rose confessing that how, even though she'd slept with Mac the first time they went out, she wasn't really that kind of girl. Mostly, though, he was just resigning himself to awkwardness all around. (He hadn't even dared to imagine what might happen if Danny showed up, because awkward wouldn't be the word for that; Danny is nowhere in evidence, though, and Mac hopes that news of his and Rose's plans filtered back to him at some point during the day, and will consequently keep him away. He tells himself that the pang of guilt he feels at this wish is irrational.)

But Stella is polite and mildly detached, and engages Rose in a conversation about work, which Rose is happy to talk about. Mac goes and buys drinks for all of them, including a second mojito for Stella, and then sits and mostly just listens to the conversation, occasionally contributing a comment when it seems appropriate, or when they look over at him. All in all, he decides, it could be much worse. At one point, Aiden and Flack wander by on their way to get fresh beers, and stop to say hello. Both of them eye Rose up and down with frank curiosity, but they don't stay for more than a minute before getting back to their game of pool.

Eventually, Mac glances at his watch, and then sits up straight and touches Rose lightly on the shoulder. "We should -- we should really go," he says. "I made an eight o'clock reservation at Nobu."

"Wow, good living," Stella says with a raised eyebrow, and smiles at Rose. "I'll say one thing for Mac: he'll rarely steer you wrong when it comes to sushi."

"Oh, I've realized that," Rose says, sounding pleased.

"Well, in that case..." Stella smiles at them again, and Mac tries to tell himself it's not one of her predatory grins. "Rose, it was really nice to meet you," she says.

"Oh, you too," Rose says, and squeezes her arm. "I've been wanting to, and, well, I'm just glad we were finally able to get together. We should do it again sometime."

"We should." Stella looks up at Mac, who's gotten to his feet. "Mac, I'll talk to you on Monday."

"Yes, you will," he says. "Good night."




They have a peaceful dinner at Nobu; Mac can't help but feel happy whenever he's got a plate full of good sushi in front of him, and now that he's gotten through the dreaded visit to Sullivan's without any of his most paranoid fears coming true, he finds that he's beginning to relax for the first time all day -- maybe for the first time all week. Rose says that she likes his co-workers, and he tells her that so does he, at least most of the time. After that they move on to other subjects, and he feels a little more of the tension drain away, almost as if he's dodged a bullet.

He hasn't, truth be told, had all that much time to worry about things like the Danny situation lately, or how things are going with Rose. Other things have kept him busy, like supervising Hawkes' training period and making sure that he's field-ready. Mac still finds it a little strange that Hawkes is willing to take what's essentially a demotion, not to mention an attendant loss in pay, in order to trade in the morgue for working actual crime scenes.

Hawkes told him one night that it was the challenge he was interested in, that he had plenty of money saved up and he didn't so much care about that as long as he had enough to live on. "I just need something new," he'd said. "I've done all I can with the morgue, now it's time to learn about something else. Something I can really make a difference with, you know?" Looking at it in that light, Mac could understand where he was coming from. And Hawkes is good at working the scenes. Even now, even this early on when he's making rookie mistakes and nervous as hell most of the time, Mac is impressed with the quality of his deductive work, and is starting to think he'll make a fine addition to the team.

When he's not busy with Hawkes, he's tangled in the red tape of getting the lab ready to move to their new location. He's still not entirely clear on why, after years of pleading their case on the need for expanded facilities, the brass has finally decided now that they can have a new lab, and that they have to be ready to move by the end of the month, and he's not entirely thrilled with the high-rise they're going to be in. On the other hand, he's taken a tour of the place, and all of the requisition forms he's put in for new lab equipment have been approved so far, so he's not about to complain. Not too much, anyway, and then mostly only to Stella, quietly.

So he could say that it's turning out to be a fine summer after all. Things are good, and there have been no further shake-ups on either the personal or professional fronts. If only he could stop these occasional unwanted thoughts from intruding at all the worst times, in fact, everything would be pretty nearly perfect.

He goes home with Rose after they finish dinner, just like he nearly always does, and in the bedroom, he puts his arms around her, kissing her softly the way he knows she likes. "Mac," she says as he slips one hand along her collarbone.


"I had a wonderful time tonight. Thank you."

He smiles a little. "Happy to oblige."

"I think -- think it's going well. Don't you?"

He feels himself tense a little, but says, "Of course." She's made comments like this before, recently, and he's never sure what they're leading up to, or what he's supposed to say in return. Because he's pretty sure this is a conversation he doesn't want to have, if it is a conversation at all, he says, "C'mere," and pulls her close, edging her toward the bed and kissing her so that she's sufficiently distracted.

And it's good as they start to get into it, it's never not been good with her, but he realizes as he starts to slide off her skirt that he's having trouble concentrating. Just the least little bit, just enough that he worries for a second or two that he's not going to be able to get it up. His mind keeps wandering off to other channels, and every time he manages to yank his focus back to what he's doing, he's only able to stay on-game for a moment or two.

And then he thinks of something else, something he hasn't thought about for awhile, and he's instantly hard as soon as it occurs to him. He can't...he tries to think of other things, but nothing else seems to work, and at last he gives up, and gives in.

Just once, he tells himself. One fantasy, what does it hurt? No one will ever know, and the brain is the most important part of the body when it comes to sex, after all, so...if this is what will turn him on and keep him focused, then this is what he'll think about. It's still about Rose, really, even if it's someone else entirely inside his head.




Not a fantasy so much as a memory, because what he's thinking about really happened, and it kept him in a state of distraction for days afterward, causing his thoughts to wander in the middle of things like witness interviews and meetings. Now he uses the memory ruthlessly, going over it in step-by-step detail as he moves with Rose.

Danny is in his office late one night, and this is after they've been...doing whatever it was they were involved in this spring for a few weeks, although the two of them here tonight has nothing to do with that. They're working a case, pure and simple, and it's one of those things that's been driving both of them crazy for days, because none of the pieces seem to fit together the way they should. And Mac knows this is wrong, as does Danny; they both know they're missing something really obvious, something they'd be able to see if they just knew how or where to look. It's giving both of them fits, and the more they look, the less they're able to see.

He's sitting at his computer sorting through various e-mails, flagging things that need to be answered and discarding anything that can be safely ignored. It's the first time all day he's had a chance to do so, and he's appalled at how much has piled up over the last twelve hours or so. He doesn't know when he's going to be able to answer them, either, doesn't know when he's going to be able to devote even five minutes to something other than this case. He passes a weary hand across his eyes, trying to think. Maybe if they go run the fibers again, then...

There's a clatter of footsteps on the stairs leading to his office, and then Danny, wild-eyed, bursts in, clutching a folder. "Son of a bitch," he exclaims, and waves the folder at Mac. "Son of a fucking bitch."

"Danny." Mac sits up straight. "Have you got something?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do." He paces back and forth. "I was goin' over and over it in my head, you know how it is, and I realized we were askin' ourselves all the wrong questions about this."


"Yeah. The question isn't: who would be angry enough at Miranda James to kill her. The question is: who benefits from her death?"

Mac feels the rush in his thoughts, the pieces starting to fall together. "And if we look at who would benefit..."

"...Then that leads us right to the one person whose DNA we never even thought to run. It's the kid, it has to be. So I went back and I talked to him, and on the way out I managed to snag a tissue out of the garbage can." Danny slams the folder down on the desk. "Son of a fucking bitch, but we got him nailed to the fucking wall. Clear, perfect match, read 'em and weep."

Mac is looking over the test results, nodding, and although this should be a serious moment, he's unable to stop the grin from spreading across his face. "Nice, Danny," he says, "very nice. Excellent job, as a matter of fact."

Danny rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. "So we go over there with a warrant in the morning, I figure, and lay it all out for him. Whattaya say?"

"I say that you deserve the pleasure of leading the interrogation, since you figured this out."

"Oh, hell yes. Christ." Danny looks at him, his face lit up by a wide smile.

"Good show, Messer," Mac says, and puts a hand on his shoulder. Up until now, he hasn't even been thinking about all his other concerns involving Danny, given how caught up he's been in this case. But then Danny leans in and kisses him, and right about then is where Mac's fantasy/memory of this really kicks into gear, because this is where it gets good; this is where Mac's thoughts go wandering for the whole next week, making him blush every single time.

Doing it in the office is, of course, all wrong; he and Danny haven't done anything together here since that very first time back in February, and that was, at least, in the locker room. Probably that isn't any better, but it seems like it should be, seems less wrong, somehow, than screwing in Mac's actual office is. For one thing, there's all the glass. Even with the door closed and locked (which it is, Danny leaving Mac alone just long enough to hurriedly flip the tumblers), anyone could walk by and see them, so not only is it unprofessional, it's dangerous in the extreme. But Mac doesn't care, and maybe the illicit nature of the whole thing even adds to his excitement. Danny kisses him hard and slips a caressing hand down to his crotch almost right away, and although Mac mumbles a token protest at first, the second Danny's fingers touch his dick he's gone; he moans and arches into the touch, and ceases to give a damn about propriety.

Danny keeps on kissing him, licking his mouth in a way that drives Mac around the bend, and he cups his hands around Danny's face and kisses him back. Danny ends up backing him right into the light boards, and then presses his body into Mac's and whispers a number of filthy suggestions in his ear about all the things he could do to him if Mac is so inclined. He won't do any of them, though, until Mac tells him exactly what he wants. He does keep on kissing him, licking a nice line from his mouth, all along his jawline, right up to his temple, and occasionally he strokes a hand along Mac's dick, but he won't do another damn thing until Mac manages to stutter out what he wants, unable to quite look Danny in the eye.

"All you had to do was ask," Danny murmurs, and kisses him again, far more gently than Mac would have expected, then sinks down to his knees and undoes Mac's belt buckle and zipper. Danny teases for a bit, then slides his mouth over the head of his erection and settles into sucking him off in earnest. His fingers slide up and down Mac's inner thigh as he does, in more or less the same rhythm as his tongue, and Mac rocks into it, sighing. One hand rests on top of Danny's head, and his fingers knot helplessly into his hair as he moves against Danny's wet mouth.

He's right on the edge of coming when Danny suddenly takes his mouth away, causing him to gasp out loud -- in surprise this time, instead of pleasure -- and open his eyes and look down. Danny stares up at him, eyes wide and blurred with desire. "Please," he says. "Please fuck me, I..."

He doesn't get a chance to finish the sentence before Mac reaches down and pulls him to his feet, and kisses him roughly. "Please," Danny mutters again, against his mouth, and catches Mac's lower lip between his teeth. "Please, I want you..."

"All you had to do was ask," Mac can't resist saying, and then Danny's laughing as Mac turns him around and pushes him up against the wall hard as he enters him.

"Fuck, yeah," Danny says, and Mac wraps his arms around Danny's waist and holds on tight as he starts to move. He's kissing the side of Danny's neck when he comes, and Danny mutters his name in a low, gasping voice. It takes a few minutes for both of them to catch their breaths and collect themselves, and even after he's standing next to Danny, tucking himself away and zipping up his pants, he still feels dizzy, too buzzed to really think straight.

"See," Danny says, still gasping a little in between the words, "told ya it's all about who benefits."

Mac smiles at that, and offers to buy Danny a late-night coffee before they both head home, and in the morning they do, indeed, nail the son of a bitch to the fucking wall.




All Mac has to do is think of any of this, especially of Danny's mouth closing over his dick, or of the look on his face when he said Please fuck me, and he's instantly hard as a rock. He closes his eyes and kisses Rose, and thinks of Danny, and almost before he knows it, it's all over. Rose is lying next to him with her head resting on his chest, smiling contentedly, and he's smoothing a hand over her hair, trying to gather his thoughts.

A fantasy. That's all it is, and this is the first time in months that he's thought about that night, certainly the first time he's ever deliberately used the memory to keep his thoughts from wandering during sex. Guilt rises in him anyway, guilt and shame: here he is with Rose, who he's been seeing for more than two months now, and this is what he thinks about when he's with her? If she ever knew...but, of course, she doesn't, and she won't. He turns to her and kisses her gently.

"Going to stay tonight?" she asks.

"Of course," he says.

Just like always, he's awake for most of the night.




It's a quiet weekend; there are no repeat performances of Friday night. When he sees Rose on Saturday, he doesn't think about Danny at all, or anyone else other than her. Concentrating on what he's doing, and who he's with, proves to be no problem at all, and so he breathes easier and dismisses last night's descent into fantasy once and for all, as a one-time aberration.

Late that night, when he's inside her, he puts a hand against her sweat-slicked spine and pulls her close, and her fingers tighten on his shoulders as she arches toward him; he rocks into her in slow thrusts. His kisses are grateful, and he thinks, whispering nonsense into her hair as he comes, that everything really is going to be all right now, that things are going to turn out just fine.

He keeps on thinking this all week, all through working with Hawkes and as he begins to pack up his files for the move to the new office. He even listens patiently as Stella complains, knowing that she'll leave her packing until the last minute and then plead with him for help in getting it all together, and all he does is smile and nod when she teases him about his love life. Things are going so well, in fact, and even their various cases are flowing so smoothly, that he agrees to meet Rose for an unusual Thursday night drink at Quartino.

When he calls her Thursday afternoon to confirm, she doesn't answer either her office phone or her cell. He leaves messages, but she doesn't call back; truth be told, he doesn't think much about this. She may be in a meeting or otherwise tied up with work. Since she doesn't call to cancel, either, or to ask to reschedule, he assumes they're still on as planned, and just before eight o'clock he catches a taxi downtown.

When he gets to Quartino, he spots Rose almost immediately, sitting at a table near the back; he raises a hand in greeting, and she nods at him. "A gimlet, please," he says to the bartender. "Stoli." After he gets his drink, he goes to join Rose, wondering, now that he can see the tension etched across her face, if she's had a rough day. "Hi," he says as he reaches the table, and bends to kiss her. She doesn't exactly react, but she doesn't pull away, either.

"Hi, Mac," she says.

He sits down across from her. "Have you been here long?"

"No. Just a little while." She's not looking at him, he realizes, but staring down into her drink.

"I hope I'm not late," he says, even though he knows he's not. "Traffic down here wasn't too bad, but you just never know."

"No," she says, and shakes her head. "No, you're right on time. Perfectly punctual, as always." There's an edge to her voice that he's never heard before, one he would never associate with her. Bad day? he wonders again.

"Rose, is everything -- "

"What?" she asks, cutting him off.

He takes a drink and then sets the glass down carefully. "Is everything all right?" he says, striving for an even tone. "You seem...tense."

"Tense." She laughs, even though he's pretty sure she's not finding anything funny at the moment. "That's one way of putting it, I suppose."

Mac looks at her, then says, "Well, would you like to talk about it? Maybe tell me what's on your mind?"

"That's so funny coming from you, it really is. You just have no idea." She shakes her head, then picks up her drink and looks at it for a moment before setting it down again.

"Rose, look...I can't help you if you don't tell me. If you're just going to dance around the subject, whatever it is -- "

"Who's Claire?" she says, out of the blue, and now she does look up at him, her eyes wide with anger. He sits back in his chair, stunned, feeling as if the wind's been suddenly knocked out of him.

"How -- "

"Funniest thing," she says, and now her tone is conversational. "I was here last night, too. I came here with some people from work, and we ran into a couple of friends of mine from college. One of them, Marc, he'd brought along his new girlfriend, Sarah, and she used to work at Price Waterhouse."

"Oh?" Mac says. He runs a finger along the edge of his glass.

"Yes, and when I mentioned I was dating a police officer, and mentioned your name, it was the funniest thing. She knew who you were, only she said that you'd been married to a woman named Claire. At first I thought, well, maybe she's thinking of someone else, but she described you well enough. And, after all, how many Mac Taylors could there be who work crime scene investigation for the New York police department." Rose stares at him. He doesn't say a word.

"Do you know how embarrassing it was when I clearly had no idea who Claire was, or that you were married?" she asks. "How everyone stared at me? So maybe now you can tell me who Claire is."

You already seem to know that, he wants to say, but he bites back the words. "She's -- she was my wife. She...died. In the Trade Center."

Sympathy flashes across Rose's face for just a moment, mingling with the anger there, then she says, "And just when were you planning to tell me this?"

"I don't know," he says. "I...I wasn't intentionally trying to deceive you, if that's what you're thinking. It's just...the timing never seemed right, that's all."

Rose sits up straighter in her seat, and her hands, clutching a napkin, knot into fists. "I asked you flat-out that first night if you were married or seeing anyone. Now, I suppose you could say that, technically, your answer was still true, but you might have at least mentioned that you had been married."

"We had just met," he says. "It didn't seem...appropriate to burden you with that kind of thing right off the bat."

"You know, that I could understand. If you'd sat me down and told me sometime in the next few days, the next week, even..." Her voice trails off for a moment. "Here we've been seeing each other all summer and we wouldn't even be talking about this now, if I hadn't run into Marc and Sarah. If not for your precious string theory."

He looks up in surprise. "What?"

"That's the funny thing about Manhattan," she says. "You can live three blocks away from someone and not see them even once in a decade. Or it can be a lot like a small town. You should know all about how coincidence works; you're the one who's always saying that everything is connected."

"I suppose that's true, but -- "

"But nothing! All those weeks I saw you at the coffee shop...I thought you were just a nice, lonely man. If I'd known -- "

"All those weeks you saw me at the coffee shop, I was still wearing my wedding ring," Mac says, more sharply than he'd intended. "If you'd just noticed that, you could have saved yourself all this trouble."

Fresh hurt flashes across Rose's face; the dart has struck home, and Mac realizes that, somewhere inside, he's meanly glad of it. Maybe he did learn a thing or two from his time with Danny after all.

"And just when did you take it off?" Rose asks. "You weren't wearing it that first night we went out, I know that for sure."

Mac looks down at his hands on the table. "I took it off before I came to see you."

She laughs a little again. "Oh, that's just great."

"What do you want me to say?" he asks. "I'm telling you the truth. I don't -- Rose, look." He tries to soften his voice, to speak more calmly. "I didn't know how to say it, that's all."

"'I used to be married and my wife died.' I know it's not the easiest thing in the world to say, but..." She pauses. "What else haven't you told me?"

Where to even begin with that one? Mac doesn't answer, but he can think of several things, all of which would shock her, maybe, even more than the revelation of his marriage has. Like that he was screwing Danny Messer, one of his employees, all spring, and that his beat-up face that first week he and Rose were seeing each other came from Danny, not from a perp like he'd told her and everyone else. Like when he was in the Corps, he spent over a year fucking one of his squad buddies, and that the time they both came to New York City for Fleet Week was the only time they ever touched each other in front of anyone else.

Like that sometimes he hates Claire for dying, because if she hadn't, he thinks, he wouldn't be in a mess like this right now. His life would be simple and straightforward and calm, the way he's tried to talk himself into believing it could be with Rose all summer long. All of his deepest, most closely-held secrets, and now he wants to spill them out of sheer spite, if doing so will make Rose understand once and for all that he's not the man she imagined him to be, not even a little bit. He's spent the entire season trying to live up to her expectations, trying to be what she needs, and look at where it's gotten him.

"I don't know," he says at last, and this time he doesn't try to keep the bitter tone out of his voice. "Would you like a list?"

Instead of shouting at him, as he half-expects her to, she stares at him, then says, "Mac, do you even care? Even a little bit?"

"Of course I do," he says, horror crashing over him as he realizes how badly wrong this is all going. "I'm sorry, I should have told you sooner. I...I just didn't know how. Please believe that."

"I believe you're sorry," she says, after studying him. "But I don't...I don't think it's me you're sorry about."

"That's not -- "

"Or not just me." She draws in a deep, shaky breath, as if she's trying not to cry. "And I like you, I really did like you. I thought maybe we had a shot at having something good together. I wanted this to work out."

"So do I," he says.

"Maybe, but you don't want it enough."

"Rose, please..." He reaches out for her hand, and she pulls it back swiftly.

"I don't...I have to leave now," she says.

He looks at her. "Do you?"

She nods. "Yes. I...I need to think about things. Don't call me for awhile, all right?"

"All right," he says in a low tone.

She pushes the remains of her drink to one side and fumbles for her purse, then stands up. He looks up at her. This is a moment he's going to remember, he realizes, a moment when someone else walked out of his life -- or when he pushed her out. He wants to say something -- he wants to say a lot of things, really -- but he can't seem to find the words. "Good night, Rose," he says at last.

"Goodbye, Mac," and she's gone, and she doesn't look back. Mac sits where he is, not moving, and after a minute he picks up his gimlet and takes a drink.

He almost wishes that she had screamed at him, had declared that she hated him and never wanted to see him again; he would have despised the scene they would have made, but at least it would have put a clean end to things. Does he even want it to end, he wonders, or does he want to go after her, to try some more to apologize and explain? He honestly doesn't know. Instead, he forces himself to sit still and finish his drink.




After he leaves, he decides to walk for a little while instead of getting on the subway right away. It's a nice night, some of the humidity of the day starting to burn off for once, and he needs to clear his head.

As he strolls, not really thinking consciously about where he's headed, but just letting his feet guide him, he finds himself thinking about other walks he's taken in the city. He can remember walking Rose home that first night, the breeze coming off the river and how the cobblestone streets had gotten him thinking about New York's tangled history, how much the city has changed in some respects, and how little it has in others. He remembers walking along the riverfront with Claire, down at the tip of the island, back before the Trade Center, even back before they got married; they'd just been dating and they decided to go for a walk because it was a nice night, and he kissed her under one of the streetlights: total cliche, of course, but it had been good all the same. Still the pang when he thinks about her, that little arrow of guilt and loss that's probably never going to go away, and that guilt increases every time he feels the old anger at her death, or when it takes him a minute or two to be able to recall her face in any detail.

Years before that, he thinks, standing to one side as a group of drunken partygoers stagger past, there was his walk with Abernathy, that time they came to the city for Fleet Week. They walked all the way back to their ship that morning after they picked up the girl in McSorley's, with hangovers yet, and the distance he now knows they walked staggers him when he figures it out. Back then, they hadn't even blinked. That early morning, his thighs had ached like fire, and his mouth and head had been filled with the cotton-wool of a bad hangover, but he'd been happy all the same, content and, for once, not embarrassed about what he and Abernathy had done together the night before.

A million stories in the big city, Abernathy says, and You got your own story, right, but someone else's got a little piece of it, too. He'd remembered that earlier in the summer and tried to disavow it, had puzzled out how, though it was sometimes true, it wasn't always, certainly not in his own case. Now, like a lot of other things, he has to reconsider that, because it seems his decision about what to say and what not to say had farther-reaching effects than he would have guessed.

He remembers Abernathy dancing across Eighth Avenue in the weak morning light, can still see that clear as anything, even if Abernathy's face has started to fade in his mind even more than Claire's -- though, when he starts to forget him, he can always go look at the photo in his office, if he wants.

Don't talk to me about friendship. You don't know shit about it, Mac, can't see a goddamn thing past the nose on your face. He remembers Abernathy saying that, too, although he doesn't want to.

He's walked in the city with Danny, too, lots of different places, talking about cases or about whatever happened to strike Danny's fancy at any given time. Sometimes these walks began or ended with kisses, with Danny's hands and mouth all over him and with him holding Danny tightly, in Danny's Queens apartment or in the darkened front seat of a borrowed department vehicle, or -- once or twice -- in an alley behind a bar. Those memories are still fresh, and Danny's face is all too clear in his memory; he can remember all of it in detail, from that first blowjob in the locker room to that last brutal kiss, blood smearing across his face as Danny pushed him away.

And everything in between, too: their conversations at Sullivan's or in bed together, their visit to the shooting range, Danny's sudden grins. Please, I want you, and All you had to do was ask, Danny's clever mouth and talking about work at the kitchen table or over glasses of beer, how he'd been starting to feel like it was, if not exactly a safe place, at least a place where he could relax a little, could be himself, more or less, without repercussions. And then it had, of course, all come crashing down, first that stupid case in Columbus Circle and Danny's useless defiance, and then the goddamned Minhas shooting. Son of a bitch.

Christ. He's not supposed to be thinking about Danny, he knows that, and aside from that one little slip-up last Friday, he's been good all summer. He really has.

Then again, is consciously not thinking about someone, having to make an effort to banish them from your memory and thoughts, only a photo-negative of thinking about them? He doesn't know. He'd be willing to bet, though, that Danny hasn't had the same problems over the last few months; he's pretty sure that Danny has spared him little more than a second thought since that last time they really talked to each other. Danny avoids him and speaks with cool, professional politeness whenever they do talk not because he can't bear to do anything else, but because he simply doesn't care. Maybe. Or maybe it's the reverse.

Mac simply doesn't know, and he can't seem to muster the investigative skills to figure it out, can't push past his jumble of emotions to grasp the solution. He realizes, suddenly, how tired he is. Not tired the way he usually is, not the familiar exhaustion of the insomniac (and the workaholic, Stella would add), but a more fundamental bone-weariness. He would like to put it all behind him, sleep for a year, and wake to find that his problems have been carried away with the tide. The province of the city-dweller, maybe, or is it something that's peculiar to him alone?

Whichever it is, it doesn't much matter, the end result is the same: he's exhausted, tired of everything, and as he stands at the corner waiting for the light to change, he thinks longingly of a nice, restful coma.

He steps onto the opposite curb and then looks up, taking note of his surroundings for the first time in he doesn't know how many blocks. He's walked almost all the way to the lab, he realizes with a sudden jolt; one more street up and he'll be there. Once he's there, he thinks, putting one foot in front of the other with an effort, he might as well go in and see what's on the docket, see what tests he needs to start running; it's a work day, after all, and there's always more to get through than can be accomplished in a mere eight hours. Anyway, he has nothing better to do.




Rose doesn't call; he doesn't really expect her to. A few days pass by, a weekend and then the beginning of another work week, and he keeps thinking that he should talk to Stella about all of this, that she'd be able to tell him what to do. But he can't seem to muster the energy for this, either, and anyway, there's too much unsaid with her, too, too much he hasn't told her, and he can't even begin to think where to start, much less what her reaction might be to all the things he has to reveal. Once or twice, he catches her looking at him with a worried frown, seemingly about to say something, but he always manages to dodge the moment, and so avoids the issue.

They're truly in dog days now, August torpor, and everyone seems to be weighed down by the heat, the lab and all of New York City moving in slow motion. Not just him, then, but he spends a lot of time thinking about stasis, about things like insects caught in amber. And he can't sleep, much, so he buries himself in work and keeps his head buzzing with caffeine; but then, this is nothing new.

One evening near the end of the week, the air-conditioning isn't working very well in the offices, and he needs a little bit of a break, so he goes outside to sit on the front steps and take in some air. He's been there for a little while, watching traffic go by and squad cars pull in and out, and doing a pretty good job of not thinking about much of anything, when he hears the door swing open behind him. He doesn't hear it close again, though, and no one passes him on the steps, so he turns around to look and see what's going on.

"Hi, Danny," he says. Danny is standing still in the precinct doorway, holding the edge of the door so that it can't swing shut, staring down at Mac and biting his lip.

"Hey," Danny says after a pause.

"Are you coming out or staying in?" Mac asks.

"Out," Danny says, and seems to realize, and lets go of the door as he walks out onto the top step.

"On your way to the morgue?" he says. "Or are you done for the day?"

"Naw. Neither. I some more stuff to run through AFIS, but I thought..." The sentence trails off, and he shrugs. "Was gonna take a break first, that's all."

"Well, you still can," Mac says. "Have a seat." He's surprised at himself for saying it, but these are the most words Danny has spoken to him in ages that aren't a bland recitation of fiber trace results or DNA matches.

Danny starts to say something, then stops, and Mac is convinced that he's going to decline, but he doesn't. He doesn't sit down, either, but leans back against the wall to the side of the door.

"How's the case going?" Mac says.

"Fine. It's, you know. Fine." Danny takes off his glasses and holds them up to the light, then starts polishing them on the hem of his shirt. "Lotta tests to run, then we'll see what we got."

"What about the rest of your caseload -- everything all right there?"

"Yeah, it's all fine," Danny says. He puts his glasses back on. "You know, if you're thinkin' that I'm falling behind on anything, I'm not. I'd be happy to show you all the files if you need to see where I am with this stuff."

"No," Mac says quickly. "No, I didn't mean that. I know you're on top of everything. I just..." He hesitates. "Wanted to make sure everything was going well."

"Yeah." Danny tilts his head back, staring up at the sky. "Yeah, okay. Well, it's all going fine. No worries there."

Mac gets to his feet, uncomfortable with having to look up at Danny. "And you?" he says. "How are you doing?"

Danny stares at him. "Fine," he says after a minute. "I'm fine, too." His voice is cold, the slightest touch of anger in his tone.

Mac tries to ignore the anger. "You know," he says, "if you ever want to discuss anything, my door is always open."

"Discuss anything."

"Yes." Mac is wishing now that he'd never started this, but he barrels ahead anyway. "A case, or if you're having any issues with settling back into your work, I..." He can't think of a way to finish the sentence.

"Right," Danny says. "Yeah, but no, I don't think so. Don't think I'm gonna be comin' by to discuss anything like that anytime soon."

"Of course," Mac says, and clenches his hand into a fist, digging his fingernails into his palm. "But if you ever do -- "

"Or anything else, for that matter," Danny interrupts. Mac wills himself to refrain from hitting him. "But, hey, thanks loads anyway, Mac. Really appreciate it."

"That's good," Mac says, and hears the lack of affect in his own voice now.

"Right," Danny says again, and then makes a show of glancing at his watch. "Know what, think I'm gonna go get some coffee or something before I start up with AFIS. See ya 'round."

"See you, Danny," Mac says. He stares into Danny's face, and Danny looks back at him without blinking. His eyes are as cold as his voice, cool blank stare like he's been giving Mac all summer, only now there's something else in it, too, contempt or hatred. Either way, it makes Mac want to back off. There's nothing in that stare of their history together, nothing that says Danny remembers -- or cares about, if he does -- any of their conversations or the cases they worked together, or how they kissed each other, how he used to whisper sweet, obscene promises in Mac's ear in the middle of the night. A million stories, Mac thinks. "Take care," he says as Danny walks down the steps. Danny nods without looking back.

Mac stands looking down the street after him for a long time, then turns and goes back inside.